Albert Einstein earned international fame for his general theory of relativity, which was published 100 years ago. The landmark theory redefined how people thought about space, time and gravity, but in the last 20 years of his life, Einstein parlayed his public admiration into promoting causes outside of physics that were dear to his heart.
Albert Einstein’s activities as a passionate advocate for peace were well-documented during his lifetime. His celebrity as a famous physicist and one of the world’s most recognizable faces lent a great deal of weight to his pacifism, a view otherwise not given much consideration in the popular press at almost any time in history.
Most people know that Einstein was an anti-war activist, but after moving to the United States in 1933 and becoming a U.S. citizen, the iconic scientist also confronted American racism. According to the authors of “Einstein on Race and Racism,” (Rutgers University Press, 2006), Einstein was keenly aware of the similarities between American segregation and the treatment of Jews in Germany. The scientist was as passionate about combating racism and segregation as he was about combating war.
Before moving to Princeton, New Jersey, Einstein was harassed and denounced by the Nazis. But when he got to his new hometown in the United States, he found that it was also strictly segregated, with separate schools and movie theaters for blacks and whites. And at the time, Princeton University wouldn’t admit black students.
In 1946, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist traveled to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the alma mater of Langston Hughes and Thurgood Marshall and the first school in America to grant college degrees to blacks. At Lincoln, Einstein gave a speech in which he called racism “a disease of white people,” and added, “I do not intend to be quiet about it.” He also received an honorary degree and gave a lecture on relativity to Lincoln students.
Albert Einstein at Lincoln University.. Racism ‘a fatal misconception’ Image credit: Compton Herald
The reason Einstein’s visit to Lincoln is not better known is that it was virtually ignored by the mainstream press, which regularly covered Einstein’s speeches and activities. (Only the black press gave extensive coverage to the event.) Nor is there mention of the Lincoln visit in any of the major Einstein biographies or archives.
In fact, many significant details are missing from the numerous studies of Einstein’s life and work, most of them having to do with Einstein’s opposition to racism and his relationships with African Americans.
That these omissions need to be recognized and corrected is the contention of Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, authors of “Einstein on Race and Racism” (Rutgers University Press, 2006). Jerome and Taylor spoke April 3 at an event sponsored by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. The event also featured remarks by Sylvester James Gates Jr., the John S. Toll Professor of Physics, University of Maryland.
According to Jerome and Taylor, Einstein’s statements at Lincoln were by no means an isolated case. Einstein, who was Jewish, was sensitized to racism by the years of Nazi-inspired threats and harassment he suffered during his tenure at the University of Berlin. Einstein was in the United States when the Nazis came to power in 1933, and, fearful that a return to Germany would place him in mortal danger, he decided to stay, accepting a position at the recently founded Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He became an American citizen in 1940.
Thomas Mann with Albert Einstein Princeton 1938 Image credit: Commons Wikimedia
But while Einstein may have been grateful to have found a safe haven, his gratitude did not prevent him from criticizing the ethical shortcomings of his new home.
“Einstein realized that African Americans in Princeton were treated like Jews in Germany,” said Taylor. “The town was strictly segregated. There was no high school that blacks could go to until the 1940s.”
Einstein’s response to the racism and segregation he found in Princeton (Paul Robeson, who was born in Princeton, called it “the northernmost town in the South”) was to cultivate relationships in the town’s African-American community. Jerome and Taylor interviewed members of that community who still remember the white-haired, disheveled figure of Einstein strolling through their streets, stopping to chat with the inhabitants, and handing out candy to local children.
Einstein formed relationships with several prominent black leaders—inviting opera singer Marian Anderson to stay in his home after she was refused a room at the Nassau Inn and appearing as a character witness for W.E.B. Dubois when the latter stood accused of “failing to register as a foreign agent.” But it was his 20-year friendship with Robeson that seems central to his involvement in civil rights causes. The Harvard Gazette writes:
Einstein met Paul Robeson when the famous singer and actor came to perform at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre in 1935. The two found they had much in common. Both were concerned about the rise of fascism, and both gave their support to efforts to defend the democratically elected government of Spain against the fascist forces of Francisco Franco. Einstein and Robeson also worked together on the American Crusade to End Lynching, in response to an upsurge in racial murders as black soldiers returned home in the aftermath of World War II.
At the time of the Gazette article, 2007, a movie about Einstein and Robeson’s friendship was apparently in the works, with Danny Glover as Robeson and Ben Kingsley as Einstein. The project is apparently stalled, but with the upsurge in popular interest in the history of civil rights—with the overturning of the Voting Rights Act and the widespread coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington—perhaps the project will see new life soon. I certainly hope so.
Einstein with his Black Communist buddy Paul Robeson (right) Image: Smithsonian Magazine
The 20-year friendship between Einstein and Robeson is another story that has not been told, Jerome said, but that omission may soon be rectified. A movie is in the works about the relationship, with Danny Glover slated to play Robeson and Ben Kingsley as Einstein.
Gates, an African-American physicist who has appeared on the PBS show Nova, said that Einstein had been a hero of his since he learned about the theory of relativity as a teenager, but that he was unaware of Einstein’s ideas on civil rights until fairly recently.
May 1946 Albert Einstein with children of Lincoln University faculty at reception in University Hall.. “I never teach my pupils…I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein.. Image: Solarey.net
Einstein’s approach to problems in physics was to begin by asking very simple, almost childlike questions, such as, “What would the world look like if I could drive along a beam of light?” Gates said.
“He must have developed his ideas about race through a similar process. He was capable of asking the question, ‘What would my life be like if I were black?’”
Gates said that thinking about Einstein’s involvement with civil rights has prompted him to speculate on the value of affirmative action and the goal of diversity it seeks to bring about. There are many instances in which the presence of strength and resilience in a system can be attributed to diversity.
“In the natural world, for example, when a population is under the influence of a stressful environment, diversity ensures its survival,” Gates said.
On a cultural level, the global influence of American popular music might be attributed to the fact that it is an amalgam of musical traditions from Europe and Africa.
These examples have led him to conclude that “diversity actually matters, independent of the moral argument.” Gates said he believes “there is a science of diversity out there waiting for scholars to discover it.”
While celebrating the general theory of relativity’s 100th anniversary, it’s also worth remembering Einstein’s lesser-known advocacy work. Here are six ways Albert Einstein supported the civil rights movement in America.
1. Shortly before moving to America, Einstein backed a campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in 1931.
2. When Princeton’s Nassau Inn refused to rent a room to contralto opera star Marian Anderson because of her skin color, Einstein invited the singer home as his guest. Their friendship lasted from 1937 until his death in 1955, and Anderson stayed with the Einsteins whenever she visited Princeton.
3. In 1946, Einstein gave a rare speech at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a historically black university, where he also accepted an honorary degree. The appearance was significant because Einstein made a habit of turning down all requests to speak at universities. During his speech, he called racism “a disease of white people.”
4. Einstein was a friend and supporter of African-American actor and singer Paul Robeson, who was blacklisted because of his civil rights work. The pair worked together in 1946 on an anti-lynching petition campaign. In 1952, when Robeson’s career had bottomed out because of the blacklisting, Einstein invited Robeson to Princeton as a rebuke to the performer’s public castigation.
5. Einstein continued to support progressive causes through the 1950s, when the pressure of anti-Communist witch hunts made it dangerous to do so. Another example of Einstein using his prestige to help a prominent African American occurred in 1951, when the 83-year-old W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, was indicted by the federal government for failing to register as a “foreign agent” as a consequence of circulating the pro-Soviet Stockholm Peace Petition. Einstein offered to appear as a character witness for Du Bois, which convinced the judge to drop the case.
6. In January 1946, Einstein published an essay, “The Negro Question,” in Pageant magazine in which he called racism America’s “worst disease.” Here is an excerpt from that essay.
“There is, however, a somber point in the social outlook of Americans. Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am clearly conscious; but they are unimportant in comparison with the attitude of the “Whites” toward their fellow-citizens of darker complexion, particularly toward Negroes. The more I feel an American, the more this situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out…
Your ancestors dragged these black people from their homes by force; and in the white man’s quest for wealth and an easy life they have been ruthlessly suppressed and exploited, degraded into slavery. The modern prejudice against Negroes is the result of the desire to maintain this unworthy condition.”
Shared some comments written in http://www.openculture.com/2013/08/albert-einstein-civil-rights-activist.html
The construct of “race” did not really exist until around the 16th century and is thought to have originated with the Portuguese. The word you are looking for is “prejudice”. People have always been prejudiced against foreigners and probably always will be. However, that’s more a matter of nationalism and fear of the unknown than anything else, which even lesser animals exhibit. Racism, however, is the belief that your race is superior to another. A very different and far more dangerous idea altogether as one can eventually cease to be seen as foreigner once enough time passes and some other new group arises. One cannot however change the physical markers that societal constructs force on each “race” of people. ~ Supergirl
I’m glad Einstein was courageous enough to make this statement in regards to American racism. Americans never want to HONESTLY speak about racism and how it’s tearing this country apart. Racism is still very prevalent today and only because no one wants to have an honest conversation. There is no understanding of what racism is and now people think that when you call out some white people on their racist behavior then lo and behold that person is racist. Talking about racism and its origin is not about blaming but about examining ones beliefs, behavior and ones reactions to racist beliefs and behaviors. When Americans grow up and learn to speak about race openly and honestly will we grow as a country where ALL the citizens are seen as equal and afforded equal opportunity. ~ Pepper
Racism IS American culture. The whole culture itself is racist. American culture is a white supremacy culture, where whites have more power in this society than nonwhites. After 500 years, we still favor the lighter skin than the darker skin in America, such as employment hiring, hollywood films, dating, education system, justice system, etc. Racism has not gotten better over time. It is only the form of racism that has evolved over time. America was born out of racism and genocide. It’s the first nation in the world that was born racist. We are all racists in America, we all judge each other base on racial stereotypes on the first impression. And the stereotypes are reinforced by the media. Like I always said “If you ain’t racist enough, you ain’t American enough.” ~ sherlock homes
White supremacy is an idea. White supremacists are people who believe or promote the idea of white supremacy. And you don’t need to be wearing pointy white hats nor having a swastika tattoo to be one. In fact, you don’t even need to be white to be a white supremacist. We all believe in white supremacy, especially in America.
We all say we love chinese food and mexican food. But if I ask you to pick a restaurant for your anniversary, how likely how you gonna pick a chinese or mexican restaurant? No, white supremacy culture promotes that we should go to french or italian because they are “higher class” than chinese or mexican.
Name the world famous artists. Are they all white? Or majority are white? White supremacy cultural education system taught us that European artists are the ones we should idolize, they are the ones we should follow. Another promotion of white supremacy.
Not only our behavior has been conditioned to white supremacy by American culture, our way of thinking is too. ~ sherlock holmes
The Isis Papers explains much of the issue of racism pretty well.
I am connected spiritually to all my people who were torn from their homes and forced into slavery.
The British so called empire is built on the profit of this filthy trade so when an uneducated english man tells me to get out of his country I tell him to in fact get out of My land.
You see, the surfer these simple people use on their cereals, the art galleries they visit to pretend that they are civilized and cultured all exits directly because of my brother’s and sister’s who died in the mist brutal of ways.
The German royal family in this country were involved in this trade of human kidnap.
The Elephant and Castle
tube station and various pubs of that name are named so to CELEBRATE the sheer evil connection the royal family had and still has with slavery.
The Jamaican Prime Minister understandably asked for The british to give up all colonial power of land, what happened?
The simpleton fake disgusting so called majority in this country shouted this idea down through various media outlets and harry was sent to Jamaica to tell the Prime Minister to shut up her bloodclart on such matters.
Who ever says the effects of slavery, colonialism both heavily related are over are living in a fairy world. ~ Humanistic Revolution
Honestly, we will never have an open dialogue on race in America because there is a culture of denial that goes way back to the building of the pyramid by Hotep and the discovery that all humans come from “Lucy”who was found in Africa. The Olmec features are distinctly African and so are the features of the pharaohs and queens of the Nile. These historic truths have been largely ignored or distorted to make real African people think that they are of no value or have no significant contribution to civilization. The opposite is true but not taught in European or American schools or churches. Religion takes the hearts and spirit of a people and makes their captivity seem spiritually correct. In fact, scripture seems to support slavery as an honorable situation to find one’s self in during colonial Times. This is and was brainwashing at its best. Notwithstanding the fact that in Europe and some South American countries they still worship the Black Madonna and Black Holy Infant who have black skin and wooly hair…We just weren’t taught our history but were taught HIStory! It begins with us teaching our youth at home the facts because I doubt they will ever be taught the truth in school. We need to learn ourselves that some of the things we thought we know aren’t the truth. The truth will set you free! Just don’t rely on others to tell you the whole truth unless it benefits them. ~ Dana L Washington