Charlie Chaplin and Einstein at the Hollywood premiere of City Lights, January 1931
Einstein’s Rebel Heart: The Genius Who Spoke Truth to Power
By Max Eternity
“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”
While projecting an image of equality and freedom, the United States has an old habit of being on the wrong side of justice—a nation born of the demolition of Africa and the Americas—of untold atrocities and genocides. The United States is a place simultaneously declaring independence and freedom for all, except for American Indians, except for African-Americans, except for Arabs, except, except, except.
A film released in October last year by director Ava DuVernay, entitled 13th, speaks to the United States’ precarious and convoluted concept of justice and freedom. 13th tells the story of the 13th Amendment to the Bill of Rights, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States, with the exception of punishment for a crime. And it is this exception, DuVernay says, that paved the way for the modern day mass incarceration and the prison-industrial complex, which DuVernay considers an extension of slavery.
DuVernay is definitely not the first to expose the contradictory nature of equality in America. In recent years, Michelle Alexander, Dr. Cornel West, Bryan Stevenson and many others have had much to say. And as is the case today, there have always been rebels along the way who refused to accept the status quo—individuals who risked great personal harm to ensure the protection of others against government sanctioned hypocrisy and injustice.
The 20th century’s most iconic scientist, Albert Einstein, was one such person—actively campaigning at home and abroad for equality—speaking truth to power at the highest levels. Einstein spoke out about injustice wherever he saw it, and never feared going against social norms or conventional wisdom.
In the course of his life Einstein gained enormous popularity, which others tried to quell or use in their favor.
Einstein and Israel
The creation of the State of Israel, which came in response to the millions of Jews that suffered and died in Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, was never an idea wholly embraced by the entire Jewish community. Of course there were many supporters who believed that the time had come for a Jewish nation—a homeland and sanctuary. There were also many who, at least in theory, liked the idea, but who ultimately decided that a Zionist nation that gave exclusive priority to Jews was destined to become separatist, if not outright racist, and otherwise undemocratic.
In an article last summer at Haaretz, entitled “We’re American Jewish Historians. This Is Why We’ve Left Zionism Behind,” co-author to the article, Hasia Diner, askes “Does Jewish constitute a race or ethnicity? Does a Jewish state mean a racial state?”
Diner was once an ardent supporter of Zionism, but now considers it “naïve,” saying in the piece that:
The socialist Zionism of the Habonim youth movement was central to my early years, providing my base during the 1970s when the Jewish settlement of the Occupied Territories began. I need not belabor the point that from that date on, the Palestinian land that has been expropriated for Jews has grown by leaps and bounds and that the tactics used by the State of Israel to suppress the Palestinians have grown harsher and harsher.
And Diner also says in the piece that:
The death of vast numbers of Jewish communities as a result of Zionist activity has impoverished the Jewish people, robbing us of these many cultures that have fallen into the maw of Israeli homogenization. The ideal of a religiously neutral state worked amazingly well for the millions of Jews who came to America.
It’s a dilemma that many Jews have been faced with, including Albert Einstein, who was invited to be Israel’s president when the nation was created from Palestinian lands in 1948. From an essay by William Lorenz Katz:
It was a momentous time for Einstein because he had been invited to serve as president for the new state of Israel.
Einstein … saw some merit in Zionism and wished the new state success, [but] he had long opposed a Jewish state. Instead, he had always favored a “reasonable agreement” between Palestinians and Jews to share power in any state carved out of British-controlled Palestine.
Einstein was worried that once having crafted their own state apparatus, his people, like others, would abandon their idealism and spirituality, slavishly follow a narrow nationalism, and capitulate to a state machine concerned with its borders, building an army, demanding conformity and exerting repressive power. He could not encourage this course, so Einstein denied the new state his enormous prestige and declined its presidential office.
How many qualified individuals would turn down an invitation to be president of a new nation? The lure of power is a great temptation for many, if not most. But Einstein was not a man tempted by power, nor was he intimidated by it.
Einstein Fights Hoover and McCarthy’s Domestic Terror Campaign
In a country that somehow sees itself as a great hero and savior to the civilized world, too many historical accounts say otherwise, including a period in time with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sought to humiliate and destroy the life of Einstein—one of the most revered and beloved individuals in the modern age.
In addition to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others, Einstein was one of many high-profile social critics in the mid-20th century who used their voice to gain support and muscle for an agenda counter to what the FBI and other government entities wanted, especially Senator Joseph McCarthy and FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover.
From an essay by William Katz, entitled “Albert Einstein, Paul Robeson and Israel”:
The most admired Jewish American of the day, Einstein readily expressed his strongly-held and often radical views on peace, human rights and racial justice and the FBI began a secret file on him before he arrived here in 1933 as a refugee from Nazi Germany. Since Einstein was an outspoken foe of fascism, war and racial discrimination, agents tapped his phones, opened his letters and examined his garbage, and his file grew to 1500 pages by his death. Einstein also struck up a friendship with Paul Robeson, African American peace and justice advocate, foe of fascism, colonialism, and anti-Semitism, and a prime target of J. Edgar Hoover.
And from a book by Fred Jerome, entitled The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against The World’s Most Famous Scientist, he writes on Page 79 that:
Twelve pages of the FBI’s Einstein file concern the American Crusade to End Lynching—considerably more space than most of his affiliations. Perhaps this was because Hoover and his Bureau viewed the anti-lynching campaign—much as they would later view the civil-rights movement of the 1960s—as a threat to America’s national security. Racism in the FBI has been extensively reported, including Hoover’s vendetta against Martin Luther King and several lawsuits by African-American agents documenting bigotry throughout the Bureau. But Hoover learned his racism long before joining the FBI. It was the forth “R” in the white-only schools he attended, along with the white-only churches in the white-only world that was his sector of one of America’s most segregated Southern cities, Washington, D.C. One of Hoover’s first Justice Department security files, set up in 1919, was labeled “Negro Activities.” It denounced black-owned newspapers, including A. Phillip Randolph’s Messenger and the NAACP magazine The Crisis, edited by Du Bois.
Leading up to Hoover and the FBI’s campaign against Einstein, a friendship between Paul Robeson and Einstein developed, which would have a powerful impact in the public sphere.
The Terror of Lynching and Einstein’s Response
Immediately following the Civil War—and the freeing of Africans held in slavery for generations—President Lincoln, and subsequently Johnson, sought to put in place federally-mandated restorative policies in an attempt to fulfill the promises of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments—providing the same rights to Blacks as Whites. However successful, it was very short lived. Equality for Blacks was not something welcome by southern Whites, who refused to accept the loss of economic privilege and social status of the Antebellum South, and who in response to Reconstruction formally launched a massive assault against African-Americans, which included Black Codes, Jim Crow Laws and a terror campaign of urban massacres, including thousands of lynching.
From Howard University’s Library System a research webpage entitled Reconstruction Era: 1865 – 1877, reads in part:
Black codes were adopted by Midwestern states to regulate or inhibit the migration of free African-Americans to the Midwest. Cruel and severe black code laws were adopted by southern states after the Civil War to control or re-impose the old social structure. Southern legislatures passed laws that restricted the civil rights of the emancipated former slaves. Mississippi was the first state to institute laws that abolished the full civil rights of African-Americans. “An Act to Confer Civil Rights on Freedmen, and for Other Purposes,” a very misleading title, was passed in 1865. Other states quickly adopted their own versions of the codes, some of which were so restrictive that they resembled the old system of slavery such as forced labor for various offenses.
The racist response to Reconstruction was called Redemption, and sought in every way possible to “prevent black citizenship and equality.” From an article entitled, “Exploiting Black Labor After Slavery,” which reads in part:
Designed to reverse black advances, Redemption was an organized effort by white merchants, planters, businessmen and politicians that followed Reconstruction. “Redeemers” employed vicious racial violence and state legislation as tools to prevent black citizenship and equality promised under the 14th and 15th amendments.
By the early 1900s, nearly every southern state had barred black citizens not only from voting but also from serving in public office, on juries and in the administration of the justice system.
The South’s new racial caste system was not merely political and social. It was thoroughly economic. Slavery had made the South’s agriculture-based economy the most powerful force in the global cotton market, but the Civil War devastated this economy.
And from History.com, a webpage entitled Reconstruction, reads in part:
During Radical Reconstruction, which began in 1867, newly enfranchised blacks gained a voice in government for the first time in American history, winning election to southern state legislatures and even to the U.S. Congress. In less than a decade, however, reactionary forces–including the Ku Klux Klan–would reverse the changes wrought by Radical Reconstruction in a violent backlash that restored white supremacy in the South.
As a result of this “violent backlash,” many African-Americans fled to the North in what became known as the Great Migration. And for the Blacks who continued living in the South the terror campaign against them reached a fever pitch in the Red Summer of 1919.
In 1919, organized violence against African-Americans exploded in the form of dozens of race riots across the nation—from San Francisco to Chicago and elsewhere—that included the mass lynching of 237 Blacks in Elaine, Arkansas.
Another massive wave of violence against African-Americans occurred again immediately following the end of World War II. From an article, entitled “The Hidden Half-Life of Albert Einstein”:
But at home the war was far from over; the enemy had only changed uniforms and now wore sheets or Sheriff’s badges-or both. In the first 15 months after Hitler’s defeat, a wave of lynching and other anti-black terror, mostly but not only in the Southern states, killed more than fifty African Americans, with recently returned veterans the targets of some of the most bestial lynch mobs. The resurgent anti-black terror-not seen since the Ku Klux Klan rampages following the return of black soldiers from the first world war, a quarter-century earlier-included a number police shootings of unarmed civilians, in the North as well as the South.
In 1931, prior to his arrival to the US, Einstein was already making clear his stance against anti-Black discrimination, in part by writing a letter of support on behalf of 9 Black teenagers, known as the “Scottsboro Boys,” who were [falsely] accused of rape. And once in the US, Einstein became friends and allies with many prominent African Americans, like Marian Anderson and W.E.B DuBois, and when he saw injustice he would come to the aid and defense of African-Americans, again and again.
African-American opera singer and civil rights activist, Paul Robeson, was someone Einstein considered an ally and very good friend. And in 1946, Einstein and Robeson co-chaired an anti-lynching campaign.
Until the end of his life Einstein would continue fighting for the equal treatment of African-Americans, and against racism, which he called a disease of White people, and saying that of the entire nation’s many ills, racism was America’s worst disease.