Here is the text of the email: 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.
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.
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.
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 acknowledge Einstein’s greatness as a champion of human and civil rights for African-Americans as one of his greatest contributions to the world.
Origins: The e-mail reproduced above is an excerpt from a 2007 Harvard University Gazette article about a talk given by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, authors of the 2006 book Einstein on Race and Racism. As related in that article, Jerome and Taylor undertook their effort in order to “recognize and correct many significant details 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:
Nearly fifty years after his death, Albert Einstein remains one of America’s foremost cultural icons. A thicket of materials, ranging from scholarly to popular, have been written, compiled, produced, and published about his life and his teachings. Among the ocean of Einsteinia — scientific monographs, biographies, anthologies, bibliographies, calendars, postcards, posters, and Hollywood films — however, there is a peculiar void when it comes to the connection that the brilliant scientist had with the African American community. Virtually nowhere is there any mention of his relationship with Paul Robeson, despite Einstein’s close friendship with him, or W.E.B. Du Bois, despite Einstein’s support for him.
This unique book is the first to bring together a wealth of writings by Einstein on the topic of race. Although his activism in this area is less well known than his efforts on behalf of international peace and scientific cooperation, he spoke out vigorously against racism both in the United States and around the world.
In May 1946, Einstein made a rare public appearance outside of Princeton, New Jersey (where he lived and worked in the latter part of his life), when he traveled to the campus of Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, the United States’ first degree-granting black university, to take part in a ceremony conferring upon him the honorary degree of doctor of laws. Prior to accepting that degree, he delivered a ten-minute speech to the assembled audience in which he called upon the United States to take a leading role in preventing another world war and denounced the practice of segregation. Because mainstream U.S. newspapers reported little or nothing about the event, a full transcript of Einstein’s speech that day does not exist — the only existing record of his words is a few excerpts pieced together from quotes reproduced in coverage by the black press:
The only possibility of preventing war is to prevent the possibility of war. International peace can be achieved only if every individual uses all of his power to exert pressure on the United States to see that it takes the leading part in world government.
The United Nations has no power to prevent war, but it can try to avoid another war. The U.N. will be effective only if no one neglects his duty in his private environment. If he does, he is responsible for the death of our children in a future war.
My trip to this institution was in behalf of a worthwhile cause.
There is a 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.
The situation of mankind today is like that of a little child who has a sharp knife and plays with it. There is no effective defense against the atomic bomb … It can not only destroy a city but it can destroy the very earth on which that city stood.
As the authors of “Einstein on Race and Racism” noted, Einstein’s comments about segregation at Lincoln University reflected his own experiences in both his native Germany and his adopted home in the United States and were part of a pattern of his attempting to ameliorate the effects of discrimination:
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.”
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.
One woman remembered that Einstein paid the college tuition of a young man from the community. Another said that he invited Marian Anderson to stay at his home when the singer was refused a room at the Nassau Inn.
However, city officials are refusing to examine an ordinance they passed last year making it illegal for the homeless to even use a blanket to cover themselves. Last week at the regular council meeting, the council members were requested by members of the public and another council person, to review the ordinance and vote in a more humane way. They refused.
Two years ago, when the city council first considered these ordinances at the request of the mayor, and hundreds of people showed up in protest, the city refused to listen citing, “The silent majority.” that wasn’t present as their reason for moving forward on the ordinance.
As this extreme freeze comes into the panhandle, it will be illegal for the homeless to seek shelter from the cold. This is unconscionable and our city leaders have refused to respond to reasonable requests for them to accommodate the homeless in any way. I am asking for everyone on my page to take the time to share this post, write the mayor and council, and forward this to your favorite media outlet.
The city may not listen to us, but hopefully they will listen if people around the world let them know how Pensacola will be viewed if they do not overturn this inhumane ordinance.
Write the mayor: firstname.lastname@example.org
Write the council: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Pensacola Mayor Ashton Hayward endorses proposed amendments to ordinance allowing for blankets. Awaiting council vote on Thursday 13th.
I know firsthand how hard it is to be a homeless college student. Please sign my petition calling on Congress to pass landmark legislation that would make it easier for homeless kids like me to go to college
.As a formerly homeless young person, I’m so proud to be in my final year attending college. It is estimated that only one out of four homeless youth graduates from high school, so achieving a post-secondary education is quite an accomplishment. However, the journey has not been easy.
I fought through my circumstances to go to college, because I knew that was my best chance for a road out of poverty. Now I’m fighting to make it easier for other young people like me to go to college, too.
The thousands of students who are homeless or foster youth in college often have to worry about where they will live during breaks when campus housing shuts down, often right before midterms or finals. I’ve heard about how some must jump through hoops to “prove” they are homeless every year or risk losing financial aid. And sometimes they cannot qualify for in-state tuition because they have no address. The list of barriers goes on and on, on top of the obvious: it’s really hard to get to college in the first place when you don’t even have a home.
Luckily, there is a new bill in Congress, the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, that would make it much easier for students like me to go to college. Will you sign the Change.org petition I started with two other homeless students urging Congress to pass this landmark legislation?
Being homeless in college hasn’t been easy. Other students go home to their families for Christmas, but I would need to spend weeks trying to find a housing plan for the coldest time of year. Sometimes, offers to go home with friends would fall through last minute. Several years, I spent parts or all of school breaks outside or wandering around my city of Grand Rapids.
Finally, I started a successful campaign on Change.org to change my school’s policies about break housing — and I am proud to say that my college, Aquinas College, is now a leader in taking the initiative to develop safe and effective solutions for students like me.
I have seen firsthand how powerful collective action can be, but I have friends who continue to spend their breaks wandering the streets, and I have seen dozens of my fellow homeless students drop out of their studies after encountering traumatic situations. We need to harness that power of collective action now that this crucial legislation has its first real chance of passing Congress.
I am just one student, and there are thousands of young people in your own community who are waiting for their chance to shine. On behalf of all of us, please consider giving us our opportunity to rise above.
Grand Rapids, Michigan