Einstein on Race and Racism by Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor (Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, New Jersey; and London, 2005).
Many people know of Albert Einstein’s sentiments for peace, but fewer know of his concern for racial equality. Even before his hurried escape from Nazified Germany, he had involved himself in the worldwide campaign to save the “Scottsboro boys,” as they were then known. His participation in this campaign to save from death these nine Black teenagers, accused in Alabama of committing rape, earned him his first-ever entry in what would become an extensive FBI list compiled by J. Edgar Hoover on the great scientist.
It is worth taking a moment to consider the kind of people who were concerned about Albert Einstein’s political views. The FBI has a long and sordid history of promoting all that is worst in American society, but some specifics, as noted in this book, are worth highlighting:
Before the war, [J. Edgar] Hoover had maintained a number of friendly ties with Hitler’s police officials. Among other examples, he sent Hitler’s Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler a personal invitation to attend the 1937 World Police Conference in Montreal. The following year, he welcomed one of Himmler’s top aides to the United States, and we now know that after the war he embraced “former” Nazis into his Red-hunting FBI apparatus. Until Pearl Harbor, the FBI chief also held secret talks with congressional isolationists whose campaigns received covert contributions from the German government and who did their utmost to keep the United States out of the antifascist war.
Can you say “fascist sympathizer,” and “un-American subversive”? The irony could hardly be greater: J. Edgar Hoover, the friend of Nazis, was suspicious of Albert Einstein’s patriotism.
Einstein was a commonly seen figure in the Witherspoon area of Princeton where he lived. Many of the residents there -- almost all Black, given the segregation typical of that time -- had fond remembrances of how this Caucasian man, by then an American citizen, would invite them to his home, sit on their porches to talk, or walk along in silence or conversing with adults and children in the area. His simple friendliness was unaffected and natural, the expression of his honest temperament. It is hard to say how much his experience of living in Witherspoon at the same time he worked in the very racially “pure” atmosphere of Princeton spurred his involvement in civil rights efforts; what we do know is that he quickly became acquainted with and then more seriously involved in activities spearheaded by well-known Black progressives of the time.
Albert Einstein first met Paul Robeson in 1935, when the scientist went backstage to talk with the great singer/actor. This was no brief exchange of pleasantries; the two discussed events in Nazi Germany, the global situation, and their mutual hatred of fascism. It was shortly after that time that the FBI began intercepting the mail of both Robeson and Einstein, and “bugging” their phone calls. The FBI took a very interesting, additional step against Einstein:
In 1940, in an action that remained secret for nearly half a century, the FBI fed the U.S. Army a series of anti-Einstein memos (“unlikely that a man of his background… could… become a loyal American citizen”), and -- based largely on those memos -- Army Intelligence denied Einstein security clearance, barring him from work on the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb.
Thus, even the security of the United States, during the Second World War, did not come before J. Edgar Hoover’s hatred of Albert Einstein. The great Red-chaser could jeopardize a crucial part of the war effort, so long as it allowed him to undermine the reputation and scientific activities of the world-renowned scientist.
After the war, Einstein wasted no time in allying himself with those opposed to the drumbeat for war, cold or hot, against the Soviet Union. He met with and openly supported Henry Wallace for the presidency of the United States, earning him further entries in the FBI’s growing record of “unpatriotic” activities and beliefs. Thanks to the Bureau’s interest in private communications between American citizens, we know that Einstein wrote that, “No reliable or lasting peace will be possible without the political and economic emancipation of the now subdued and exploited African and colonial peoples,” characterizing that as “one of the most urgent needs of our time.” No wonder J. Edgar Hoover despised the man.
An anecdote that illustrates both Einstein’s willingness to publicly stand up to orchestrated hysteria -- something familiar to him, as a refugee from Nazi Germany -- is his intervention in a federal case brought against W.E.B. Du Bois. This occurred in 1951, when Du Bois and four other officers of the Peace Information Center were charged with failing to register as “foreign agents.”
The authors note:
Einstein quickly volunteered to testify as a defense witness in Du Bois’s federal trial . . . . Confronted with the prospect of international publicity that would have resulted from Einstein’s testimony, the judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence before the defense had a chance to present its witnesses.
Thus, the personal intervention of Albert Einstein helped to avert one of the numerous attempts by the United States government to prosecute and persecute alleged “subversives” for their exercise of free association and lawful political activity.
His opposition to racism was consistent and far-sighted. During the period of the growing Red scare, he had been invited to become the president of Israel. He declined this offer, because he was opposed to the idea of a Jewish state, preferring a bi-national creation. One can only sigh and wish his insight into the consequences of sectarian nationhood had been widely shared at the time; how much injustice and suffering might have been averted if Einstein’s path had been taken instead of the creation of Israel as we know it today.
Near the end of his life, even while expressing his despair during the McCarthy era, he managed to express his opposition to the execution of the Rosenbergs, and twice made the front page of The New York Times for urging witnesses to refuse testifying before the McCarthyite committees then investigating the political views of American citizens.
Contrast the actions of this one American citizen with the likes of Hillary Clinton and the rest of the supposed “opposition” to our nation’s current slide towards tyranny, and you cannot help but wish we had an Einstein today: a person of courage, principle, and enough reputation on the world stage to shake up the sleepers walking towards the political abyss. We are in dire straits, but the history of this man shows it is not futile to stand up even to very powerful forces. Albert Einstein was a great scientist, but he also proved himself an exceptional world citizen.
Dan Raphael has been an activist since the Vietnam War was heating up and is active with the Green Party of the United States.
Other Articles by Dan Raphael
War for Civilization