Recently resurfaced photos highlight what’s often overlooked in the storied legacy of Hebrew University co-founder Albert Einstein. He was an outspoken advocate for civil rights for black Americans facing endemic racism.
By Robert Sarner, CFHU Now, June 11, 2020
Einstein at Lincoln University
At a time when the issue of anti-black racism in the United States is dominating headlines, few people would link Einstein to the Black Lives Matter protest campaign. Yet well ahead of even the civil rights movement of the 1960s, he repeatedly stood up in defence of black Americans, denouncing the systemic, deeply rooted discrimination against them. His strong words and actions 75 years ago, often overlooked in accounts of the brilliant physicist’s life, remain equally relevant today.
In May 1946, Einstein defied the prevailing racial climate at the time to visit Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, the first degree-granting black college in the US. As captured in the above-mentioned photos seen here, he spoke with and took questions from students and accepted an honorary degree.
At that point in his life, already in failing health, Einstein rarely accepted invitations to speak at universities or accept honorary degrees as he found the presentations “ostentatious.” He made an exception in support of Lincoln University and social justice for black Americans.
“My trip to this institution was on behalf of a worthwhile cause,” Einstein said in his address. “There is a separation of colored people from white people in the United States. That separation is not a disease of colored people. It’s a disease of white people.”
Despite Einstein’s celebrity status, his visit to Lincoln was largely ignored by the mainstream media, which usually covered his other activities.
His speech was true to the principled stance he had espoused for years. A few months before appearing at Lincoln, Einstein wrote an article titled The Negro Question in Pageant magazine in which he sharply took white Americans to task for their treatment of their black compatriots, commonly referred to at the time as Negroes.
“There is a somber point in the social outlook of Americans,” he wrote. “Their sense of quality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skin. 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 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.”
Einstein enjoyed a 20-year friendship with African-American civil rights leader and actor Paul Robeson (far right). Also shown are former vice president Henry Wallace (left) and Lewis L. Wallace of Princeton University (second from right).
In Princeton, New Jersey, where Einstein lived, he lamented the town’s segregation and pervasive racism against black residents. His response was to cultivate relationship with members of the black community, often strolling through their streets, speaking with people and offering candy to local children.
In 1940, at the World’s Fair in New York, Einstein was asked to speak at the inauguration of an exhibit devoted to the diversity of the US population.
“As for the Negroes,” he said, “the country has still a heavy debt to discharge for all the troubles and disabilities it has laid on the Negro’s shoulders, for all that his fellow-citizens have done and to some extent still are doing to him.”
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