Marian Anderson and Albert Einstein were friends!! Like, friends. Not acquaintances. I am related to Marian Anderson and she hung out with Einstein. Considering the purposefully reposted quote along side Einstein’s notion that the limiters of potential are limited as well, I imagine they had some profound conversations. That’s nearly as impressive to me as her “dissing” the D.A.R. by singing on the steps outside in response to their choice to disrespect her in honor of the organization’s racial exclusion policy.
Anyway, here’s more on Einstein’s stand for equality. It was a lot more involved than delivering a speech at a University, and there are many more details here than in the article posted yesterday. Not that the speech wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought. It was! Not only was Mr. Einstein brave enough to speak out, he did it while he was ill. Outside. Ok, it was May, so maybe the weather was fine, but I’m just saying if he was looking for an excuse not to speak, sounds like he had it, but chose not to use it. Instead, he got up there and spoke to the impressionable minds of the “first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.” If young African American males today are largely still in need of academic encouragement and inspiration and respect, I can only imagine how impactful and empowering Einstein’s presence alone was pre Brown vs. Board of Ed. Just the simple fact that he spoke, and the forbidden, unspoken truth contained in his words. I have a feeling this brilliant man knew exactly what he was doing.
Albert Einstein, I acknowledge your greatness as a champion of human and civil rights and your hand in illuminating the fact that limiting the potential of a significant portion of society limits everyone in that society.
Albert Einstein at Lincoln University
(photo of Marian Anderson in background?)
by Ronda Racha Penrice
Nearly 60 years after his death, the great scientist Albert Einstein is still making headlines. The launch of Einstein Archives Online — a more advanced repository of his work — is a long-term collaboration by Israel’s Hebrew University, which he co-founded, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he was a guest faculty member on several occasions, and Princeton University, where he was a faculty member, generated global attention on March 19. Eventually, over 80,000 documents held in Hebrew University’s Albert Einstein Archives and Caltech’s Einstein Papers Project will be available on the Internet. About 2,000 are currently available.
Despite this unprecedented access, however, one thing hasn’t changed: Einstein’s strong support of African-American civil rights and his defiant stance against racism are largely footnotes, especially for the mainstream press. While it will, no doubt, be exciting to pull up correspondence between Einstein and W.E.B. Du Bois one day, his association with Du Bois was just the tip of the iceberg.
Einstein, as documented in the 2003 book Einstein on Race and Racism by veteran science writer and journalist Fred Jerome, who also covered civil rights activity in the South in the 1960s, and New York librarian Rodger Taylor whose early writings have focused on jazz and early African-American life in New York, staunchly denounced racism and segregation in the United States, even as his health steadily failed and his own mortality drew nearer.
Jerome first delved into Einstein’s human rights advocacy in his 2002 book, The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist. In that groundbreaking work, Jerome highlighted a May 3, 1946 speech Einstein gave at historic Lincoln University, the alma mater of both Thurgood Marshall and Langston Hughes and, as its then president Horace Mann Bond pointed out, “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.” Interestingly, a young Julian Bond, Horace Mann Bond’s son, was there that day.
The speech was especially significant because, as Jerome also writes in The Einstein File, “During the last twenty years of his life, Einstein almost never spoke at universities.” He routinely turned down almost all of the honorary degree requests he received.
On top of that, Einstein’s health was not the greatest. Yet, he stood outdoors to receive his honorary degree from Lincoln University, which can actually be viewed on the Einstein Archives Online now, and, even more importantly, spoke these poignant words reported in the Baltimore Afro-American May 11, 1946: “There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.”
And he was not. Einstein, as Jerome notes in his essay The Hidden Half-Life of Albert Einstein: Anti-Racism for the Journal of the Research Group of Socialism and Democracy Online, spoke these words in a time known by some as “the Bloody Spring of 1946” because it was just after black men had returned from World War II to the harsh reality that the Double V campaign, which The Pittsburgh Courier especially championed, had succeeded in saving the world from Hitler, but had not destroyed racism at home.
On February 25, 1946, William Fleming, a white radio repairman, assaulted Ms. Gladys Stephenson, a black woman, and her son James, a Navy veteran, defended her, resulting in both of their arrests. When some white men, including four policemen, headed towards the black side of town, known as Mink Slide, later that evening, they found that a group of veterans had organized themselves for self-defense, and shots were fired.
“African-Americans firing on white policemen was enough for the governor to rush in 500 State Troopers with submachine guns who attacked Mink Slide, destroying virtually every black-owned business in the four-square-block area, seizing whatever weapons they could find, and arresting more than one hundred black men,” writes Jerome.
Twenty-five of the black men arrested were indicted for attempted murder. Einstein immediately joined the National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt and also supported by Mary McLeod Bethune, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Joe Louis, A. Phillip Randolph and Langston Hughes that March. With Thurgood Marshall serving as the chief defense attorney, 24 of the 25 men were acquitted.
The violence didn’t stop in Columbia. On July 26, the heinous murder of two black men, one a veteran, and their wives in Monroe, Georgia was even reported by the New York Times. As with the majority of these acts of domestic terrorism, justice was not served. Einstein was outraged enough to lend his prominence to actor and activist Paul Robeson’s American Crusade to End Lynching (ACEL) that September.
Despite being too ill to participate in the mass rally at the Lincoln Memorial on September 23, 1946 (the day after Lincoln proposed the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in 1862), Einstein penned a brief letter to President Truman confirming his support of the ACEL.
“May I wholeheartedly endorse the aims of this delegation, in the conviction that the overwhelming majority of the American people is demanding that every citizen be guaranteed protection from acts of violence,” he wrote. That same month, Einstein penned a much longer letter in support of the National Urban League Convention that highlighted the economic injustices, among other inequalities, experienced by black Americans.
When the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused Marian Anderson lodging during her 1937 concert there, Einstein invited her into his home as a guest and they maintained a friendship. Anderson actually stayed in the Einstein home in 1955 two months before his death. Before Einstein even came to this country permanently in 1933, he responded to a 1931 letter written to him by Du Bois, who had studied at the University of Berlin where Einstein was on the faculty, to write something small against racism to be published in The Crisis. Later, Einstein supported Du Bois even as Senator McCarthy placed him at the top of his target list.
From the Scottsboro Boys case to the numerous attempts to stop the execution of Willie McGee, a black Mississippi sharecropper accused of raping a white woman, and efforts to prevent New Jersey from extraditing Sam Buckhannon, a black Georgian who had escaped a chain gang after serving 18 years for stealing a pack of cigarettes, Einstein used his fame to condemn American racism.
In the wake of the monumental effort to digitize Einstein’s life and genius for the masses, let’s hope that more of us will follow Jerome’s lead, and acknowledge Einstein’s greatness as a champion of human and civil rights for African-Americans as one of his greatest contributions to the world.
Excerpted from a blog post by Rodger Taylor on a presentation in Paris about Einstein and racism:
The Book in Bed presentation was by far the largest audience — it seemed a hundred or so people. Half of them appeared to be high school aged.
“Einstein was White. Why should or did he care about racism?” — was a question asked by a French high school student. The question sparked conversation and also framed our presentation the next day.
Some of the responses as to why included:
Because Einstein was smart.
Because he realized that limiting the potential of a significant portion of society limits everyone in that society.
Because he was empathetic — and if he could imagine what is was like to be a beam of light projected into space, he could imagine what it was like to be black in America.
Because he got to know black people on a personal basis — both in the town of Princeton where he lived and beyond and that made a signficiant difference in how he felt about the racism they experienced.
While perusing Facebook the other day, I came upon a post that really excited me. About Albert Einstein. Yeah…(nerd.)
I really admire the Einstein, thus was a bit shocked by my ignorance of his strong stance on this issue. It’s like my strong stance. How did I miss this? Naturally, I dug through the interweb to see what else I could find to feed my curiosity. I found a feast! There will be more on this topic tomorrow I believe.
I’m pleased to report that I have since forgiven myself for my ignorance, as it became clear that this hasn’t been common Einstein knowledge. It was insignificant, irrelevant, and even egregious for the times. Who would record such nonsense? Of course equality and human dignity were reserved for whites. No questions allowed. But Einstein spoke anyway. Imagine, being afraid of speaking in public, yet being courageous enough to speak publicly on a topic so taboo that he could have literally found himself in danger- political, financial, and physical. That is fierce. That is being action in alignment with cosmic law. That is something I truly admire.
Here’s the catalytic FB post:
Einstein, when he arrived in America, was shocked at how Black Americans were treated. “There is separation of colored people from white people in the United States,” he said. “That separation is not a disease of colored people. It is a disease of white people. And, I do not intend to be quiet about it.” And, he wasn’t.
Although he had a fear of speaking in public, he made all the effort he could to spread the word of equality, denouncing racism and segregation and becoming a huge proponent of civil rights even before the term became fashionable. Einstein was a member of several civil rights groups (including the Princeton chapter of the NAACP).
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.
Many a sincere person will answer: “Our attitude towards Negroes is the result of unfavorable experiences which we have had by living side by side with Negroes in this country. They are not our equals in intelligence, sense of responsibility, reliability.”
I am firmly convinced that whoever believes this suffers from a fatal misconception. 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.
—Albert Einstein “The Negro Question”, 1946
Harvard News Office
Here’s something you probably don’t know about Albert Einstein.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
—It’s Tiff again. I just have to comment about that last excerpt from Gates. That “under the influence of a stressful environment, diversity ensures survival” thing. In this case the stressful environment is racially segregated America. The mutually exclusive, dangerously juxtaposed, white vs. black America. To ensure survival, diversity is required. I’ll go out on a limb here and relate this to being mixed like me (after all, these are the mulatto diaries if I recall correctly.) To ensure the survival of America, we have to exist. We are everywhere even though we’ve been largely silent and unrecognized in any genuine manner. Yet things improve, and change happens as we wake up, and adapt, and we are different…and so is America.
“The interaction between organism and environment is central in evolution. Extinction ensues when organisms fail to change and adapt to the constantly altering … stressful environmental changes as documented in the fossil record. Extreme environmental stress causes extinction but also leads to evolutionary change and the origination of new species adapted to new environments.”-Eviatar Nevo
Don’t become extinct!