Bergen Record: Einstein was a friend of rights for blacks

Great op-ed in the Record today.

Another side of Einstein
Lawrence Aaron

Einstein said that guaranteeing every citizen protection against the violence of lynching was "one of the most urgent tasks for our generation."

ALBERT EINSTEIN'S life and work fill hundreds of volumes in many languages, but his dedication to the African-American struggle was something few were aware of.

Very little has ever been publicized about the two titans of the 20th century who met in Princeton and continued a long association.

Albert Einstein settled in Princeton in 1933 and first met Paul Robeson two years later, when the singer was performing at Princeton's McCarter Theater.

They bonded over a mutual interest in social justice issues. Einstein became Robeson's co-chair of the American Crusade to End Lynching.

Black history has a wealth of such stories, where a significant cultural crossover gets lost in the tide of events. Einstein was serious about his social politics and didn't flinch from coming to the aid of African-Americans and their causes.

Authors Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor examine this great man's insights on racial strife and human rights in their book "Einstein on Race and Racism."

In a letter written to President Harry Truman in 1946 to support Robeson, Einstein said that guaranteeing every citizen protection against the violence of lynching was "one of the most urgent tasks for our generation."

Einstein didn't advance any grand theories of race and genetics. He was a critic who observed that African-Americans weren't being treated fairly.

His interest started long before he fled Germany as his homeland was falling under the grip of the Nazis, making life unbearable for Jews and anti-fascists.

In the years leading up to Einstein's final departure from Europe in 1933 and resettlement in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study, he wrote a letter in support of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black youths facing execution on questionable charges of raping a white woman.

He also wrote a piece for the NAACP's Crisis magazine at the request of its editor, W.E.B. Du Bois, another giant in the evolution of black activism.

Dubois had solicited a piece for Crisis in a letter encouraging Einstein to "write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world."

He enticed Einstein with something they shared as scholars: Du Bois informed the Nobel Prize winner that he, too, had studied in Germany.

Einstein agreed to write, and in the article he reflected on the fact that those subjected to persistent economic and social disadvantages "come to regard people like themselves as inferior." The New York Times summed up the short article with the headline "Einstein Hails Negro Race."

A fixture in Princeton's Witherspoon neighborhood, Einstein was known to the African-American community for his distinctive gait and personable manner. According to the Historical Society of Princeton, some members of the Witherspoon-John Street neighborhood recall seeing Einstein at a local NAACP meeting held at a segregated school for black children.

This man, who had avoided the grip of Nazis, couldn't evade the clutches of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Jerome, the author, found the FBI had collected 1,800 pages of information on Einstein. They are full of notations about involvement with black organizations in addition to his membership in the NAACP.

In 1955, at the age of 83, Du Bois stood cuffed before a federal judge in Washington, D.C. Because Einstein came forward as a character witness, federal charges against Du Bois were dismissed.

Du Bois had been accused of failing to register as a foreign agent in connection with work on the international peace movement, which was "demanding the outlawing of atomic weapons as instruments of intimidation and mass murder of people."

I asked Jerome if this aspect of Einstein's life remained buried because writers and scholars thought it insignificant by comparison to his scholarly work, or whether his stature as a social activist and supporter of civil rights causes tarnished his image as a scholar and thinker.

"His personal oppression was a factor in his feeling of connection with African-Americans, but there was an intellectual level as well," said Jerome. "A lot of people just don't appreciate the importance of it."

Fifty years after his death, the book about his affiliation with black activism and with Princeton's black community may be turned into a movie, Jerome said.

The man who was recognized as Time Magazine's "Man of the Century" for his scientific achievements deserves to be recognized for his social impact as well as his impact on science.

Lawrence Aaron is a Record columnist.

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