Albert Einstein with his wife, Elsa (Image: Wikipedia)
Albert Einstein: A Social Justice Hero and Defender of Black Lives
By Max Eternity
The hefty contributions of Albert Einstein to the US civil rights movement are nothing short of legendary. Even before his arrival in the US from his native Germany, Einstein had already “backed a campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys, nine Alabama teenagers who were falsely accused of rape in 1931.” And according to a 2015 article at Live Science, when “Princeton’s Nassau Inn refused to rent a room to contralto opera star Marian Anderson” because she was Black, “Einstein invited the singer home as his guest.” It was a friendship that lasted until he died, but while alive, Anderson always “stayed with the Einsteins’ whenever she visited Princeton.”
Yet for all the hundreds of books and countless articles that have been written about Einstein’s life, it would appear most of those authors decided the world should never know how much Einstein believed Black life mattered, or the lengths he went in making that abundantly clear and known.
A 2007 Harvard Gazette article, entitled “Albert Einstein, Civil Rights activist,” states it plain by saying “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.” The article also points out some other notable facts about Einstein’s civil rights legacy, including his enduring friendship with the first, famous, African-American male opera singer:
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.
The 20-year friendship between Einstein and Robeson is another story that has not been told…
The article also makes clear that Einstein was never afraid to take a stand on civil rights issues, even in the midst of the “anti-Communist witch hunts” of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the notorious F.B.I director, J. Edgar Hoover, saying that:
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.
And speaking to a historical event that should have been covered widely by the mainstream [White] press, but instead was completely ignored, the article says:
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.
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.
Nevertheless, it remains fact that Einstein felt very strongly about the plight of African-Americans, and he wrote and spoke about this routinely. One of his better known essays on the subject is entitled “The Negro Question.”
Written in 1946, a decade after he had become a naturalized US citizen—at the end World War II—Einstein states in the beginning of his essay that regardless of one’s race or social condition, everyone “should speak out freely on what he sees and feels, for by so doing he may perhaps prove himself useful.” So in essence, Einstein believed that for him silence was not an option, writing that the “more I feel an American, the more this [racism] situation pains me. I can escape the feeling of complicity in it only by speaking out.” And diving further into his critique of White supremacy, Einstein then says that many a sincere White person concludes that their “attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country,” and that attitude is justifiable because Blacks “are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”
He immediately rebukes this all-to-common attitude saying “I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception.” Because in truth:
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.
At the end of “The Negro Question” essay, Einstein says that discrimination against African-Americans produces fatal consequences, and that for people of “good will” to truly eradicate “this deeply rooted…entrenched evil,” they must:
… have the courage to set an example by word and deed, and must watch lest his children become influenced by this racial bias.
I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the service of the good cause.
During the 1940’s, how many other White men of Einstein’s high social standing and international acclaim had the audacity to issue such a scathing and unapologetic critique racism and white supremacy at the height of their career? And with all that Einstein had to say about the treatment of African-Americans 70 years ago, it leave one to wonder what might he have to say about injustice against African-Americans today?