How Albert Einstein Used His Status To Fight Racism
by Lela Casey
The last few decades have seen many celebrities taking public stances on political issues. In 2003, The Dixie Chicks made a controversial statement against President Bush’s war in Iraq, in 2012, George Clooney participated in a protest to end the violence in Sudan, and in 2016, Colin Kaepernick took a knee to protest racial injustice.
This crossover between celebrities and politics is not a new trend, though. Throughout history, people in the public eye have used their status to promote ideals that are important to them. One such person is Albert Einstein.
Though Einstein is known best for his scientific discoveries, he never shied away from using his powerful voice to fight for the Civil Rights Movement.
His alliance with the plight of African Americans began before he even arrived in the country. In 1931, while Einstein was facing the very real threat of losing his own life under the encroaching Nazi regime, he read a story about some young men across the sea whose lives were also endangered.
The young men he read about were the Scottsboro boys, a group of black teenagers who were unjustly accused of raping two white women. Einstein joined writer Theodore Dreiser’s controversial committee to campaign for justice for the young men.
During that same year, Einstein accepted an invitation from NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois to submit a piece to his magazine The Crisis. In his article, Einstein applauded the efforts of black Americans to fight racial injustices and encouraged them not to let racism tarnish their self-worth.
In 1933, Einstein fled Germany and began working at the newly founded Insitute For Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. While living in Princeton, Einstein was dismayed by the segregation that divided the college town.
As Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor wrote in their book, Einstein on Race and Racism,: “Einstein realized that African Americans in Princeton were treated like Jews in Germany.” Perhaps it was the understanding of this link between oppressed minorities that kept Einstein fighting against injustice.
One of the ways Einstein was able to be an ally to the Civil Rights movement was by forming deep friendships with African Americans. Jerome and Taylor interviewed former Princeton residents who remember how involved Einstein became in the African American community. They recall seeing him wandering through the segregated streets, chatting with his black neighbors and handing out candy to children.
Einstein’s alliance with the black community was further strengthened when he joined the NAACP and the American Crusade Against Lynching (ACAL), an organization founded by actor-singer-activist Paul Robeson. Einstein was especially passionate about promoting anti-lynching legislation and eventually became co-chair of the ACAL.
Though he was known for rejecting public speaking opportunities, in 1946, Einstein spoke at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, a historically black university, where he attested that “racism was a disease of white people.” During his speech he was awarded an honorary degree to the university and praised for his loyalty to the Civil Rights movement.
Einstein took that loyalty to the movement and to his African American friends very seriously. In 1951, when his old friend, W. E. B. Du Bois was indicted as a “foreign agent” Einstein offered to appear as a character witness in the trial. Fearing negative publicity, the judge dropped the case against Du Bois. The next year, when Robeson, his ally in fighting against lynching, was blacklisted for his Civil Rights work, Einstein invited Robeson to come to Princeton to publicly reaffirm his support for him.
While Einstein’s social justice work may have deepened his friendship with people of color, many others were not pleased. Paul Ehrenfesst, Einstein’s close friend and fellow physicist urged him to remain silent on issues outside of the scientific realm, Robert Millikan, American physicist and Nobel Prize-winner, criticized Einstein for his support of the young men in the Scottsboro case, Henry Ford republished several German essays decrying Einstein, and FBI director, J Edgar Hoover placed Einstein under surveillance.
None of their efforts were successful in diminishing Einstein’s passion for racial justice. Just as the actors, singers, and athletes of the last few years have done, Albert Einstein, the physicist, continued to use his celebrity status to speak out for what he knew was right until the time of his death in 1955.