EINSTEIN ON RACE AND RACISM ------------------------- John Pazmino NYSkies Astronomy Inc www.nyskies.org email@example.com 2006 February 7
Introduction ---------- There were numerous lectures and shows about Albert Einstein in new York City in the last two years as part of the centennial celebration of his theory of special relativity. They dealt with various aspects of Einstein's life and work, which in assemblage gave the audience an amazingly thoro image of this TIME magazine 'Man of the century'. The Science Industry Business Library on Manhattan hosted several of thee talks, including one on Thursday 26 January 2006. This talk was, in harsh contrast to all the others, offered a facet of Einstein little known to the the public. Einstein in the postwar years in Princeton, New Jersey, was a civil rights activist! According to the speakers, Fred Jerome and Rodger Taylor, Einstein not only wrote and spoke against racism in America, but actively supported the nascent Black-American movement.
The audience ---------- The lecture room in SIBL is small, holding at utterly tightest a full hundred of seats. The usual packing is for about eighty, which was the arrangement for this talk. About 2/3 were occupied, roughly a normal attendance for any SIBL presentation. However, a third of the seats, half of the audience, were taken by blacks. This is way higher a ration for blacks at other SIBL science talks. Obviously the topic attracted a cut of population not tapped before. Yet, most of the blacks seemed to be isolated folk. They arrived individually and quietly took their seats. I hazard thia merely was a result of the first-time attendance of the black sector of the audience. Most of the other folk were regulars. They, with me, exchanged greetings and news. At the end of the talk, during the banter and informal chat, the blacks did mingle with every one else. For me, they asked the suual physics questions and details about a this or that episode in Einstein's life. On the whole, the blacks to me were about as cultured and educated as any one else I came onto at SIBL lectures.
The presentation -------------- I have to note that this was one of the more crucial lectures ever given in New York, yet was one of the poorest in presentation. The two, Jerome & Taylor, used the tag-team method of delivering the talk. This can work well if practiced and exercised. On this occasion it was a dud. The two interrupted each other, sidetracked thought trains, and disconnected from time to time. In spite of the flubs of presentation, the substance of the lecture was one that every Einstein historian better study to further his appreciation for him. Essentially, Jerome & Taylor appear to have uncovered many Einstein writings and correspondences that were never exhibited or revealed before. They claim these were available and known but for whatever reason they never made it into the mainstream shows, books, celebrations about Einstein.
Postwar Princeton --------------- After World War II, with the conquest of the German and Japanese regimes, Einstein continued to live in Princeton, New Jersey. This town, like many others in the northern states, exercised segregation and discrimination against the black population, While no where as cruel as in the Deep South, this scheme impeded the blacks from advancing upward and outward into the postwar American society. Blacks could attend cinema with whites but had to sit in their own section. Princeton University itself did not allow black students until about 1945 and reserved only the lower and poorer employment on campus for blacks. There was a black community in and near Princeton accumulated by the jobs at the university and industries in the surrounding countryside. Einstein frequented this nabe in his daily life and made friends with many of its inhabitants. Thru them he better understood the problems they faced, despite living in a country dedicated to humanity and human dignity. There was no organized civil rights program in the late 1940s thru the early 1950s, the remainder of Einstein's life. Individuals tried to build a constituency to bring the black condition to the attention of local officials, with little success. These, along with thousands of other not related to the black situation, were targeted as subversives by the rise of Senator Joe McCarthy in Congress. In the postwar period, until the main current of civil right get flowing in the early 1960s the blacks were typicly known as 'negroes' -- with the second 'e' -- or 'coloreds'. In fact, one of the early groups created in the late 1940s for alleviating black problems was, and still is!, called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Einstein supports blacks ---------------------- Having seen the horrors of an overseas society that actively and openly express physical hatred against a category of its own people, Einstein was greatly angered by what he witnesses in peacetime America in his own town, the one he fled to from oppression. He at first wrote letters and gave talks about racism, calling it wrong, inhumane, a disease, and others too raw to repeat here. For the most part, these were ignored or lightly treated, but there was little real advance in betterment for the blacks in Princeton. He did accomplish many individual successes, like stopping a black person from being arbitrarily evicted from his apartment or reducing an excessive fine for a minor violation. Fortunately, perhaps, because Princeton was a northern town, when confronted by Einstein's backing, officials generally let him have his way, but only for that particular instance.
Einstein as activist ------------------ After World War II, many of the black GIs returning home were set upon in the Deep South and hanged or otherwise liquidated. The modern explanation is based on a profound resentment that America was saved by, erm, those people, who somehow made the white folk lose face. An other relates to residual desire to keep control of the blacks, after so much was lost with the elimination of slavery. Under slavery, blacks were property with no defined human quality. They could b removed like an unwanted pet or livestock. And there was the lingering resentment that the South did lose the Civil War, which was based in part on the slave issue. Einstein saw these incidents as a show of grotesque weakness among the whites, Crudelity on the blacks caome from this weakness. Racism is a disease, not of blacks, but of white. These are characterizations of what Einstein said and wrote at the time. To better express himself and to be more available to the blacks . Einstein joined or donated to the early black civil rights groups. It seems that Einstein did attend, as a friend and member, local black awareness and community meetings in and around Princeton. In several instances, Einstein was a witness in court on behalf of blacks on trial. Most were for nonsense charges related to the crescendo of anticommunist fervor and McCarthyism. Some were for trumped up charges stemming from the accused's black agitation. He scored a mixed success rate, depending on the stature he commanded with the particular court, which depended on its location. Some parts of the United States then, and now!, have a deep-seated despising for mental or academic or scholarly pursuits. Other courts, appreciating Einstein's work in science and humanity, gave due and proper weight to his role in the black's case.
Why did Einstein care? -------------------- I note here some of the suggestions, expressed with some electricity by the audience, during the Q&A. Was the concern for the blacks just an other facet of his humanity and peacefulness? Was it a follow up to his fight for the Jews before the war? Was he fearful that American racism will develop into a full- scale pogrom and annihilation campaign? Did he want a current social cause to replace the prewar one he finished with? No one really knows now. Perhaps as more of his relics regarding blacks are uncovered and debated, an answer will come out. Maybe, just maybe, it's one of those forever latent features of Einstein that dies with the very Sun.
The neglect --------- At first, one would suppose that Einstein's role in the nascent black movement is part of the immense litterature about Albert Einstein. This would be more plausible with the recent mega celebration of Einstein with the most awesome exhibit ever. The exhibit opened at the American Museum of Natural History, toured the United States, then was permanently installed in Jerusalem in April 2005. That was the 100th anniversary of Einstein's theory of special relativity. It covered both his science work and his human work. It was filled with artifacts, letters, pictures, books describing how he fought for human rights overseas before and during World War II. There ws nothing at all about his interaction with American blacks. Nor was there any mention of blacks in the exhibit of 1979 at the Smithsonian Institution. That was for the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein's birth. The exhibit was up to that year the largest exhibition about Einstein ever in the United States and included the unveiling of an Einstein memorial statue on the Mall. Smithsonian asked journalists for suggestions to include in the exhibit. A few offered samples of the black support. These were not included for 'lack of space'. Going back to about 1946, Einstein actually traveled by invite to Lincoln University, a black college in Pennsylvania, to give a human rights speech. The black new media covered the event; the other media ignored it. In an other instance, Taylor, as librarian, was asked by one of the Einstein biographers for ideas and evidence. He sent copies of various Einstein letters for black advocacy. The biographer turned them down for 'lacking academic integrity'. And, believe it or not, the major biographies of Einstein are vetted of the black era of his life! Or there is only the briefest note about it, among chapter after chapter about every thing else. I looked in a hypertext CD with four biographies. Nothing substantial about blacks or negroes or coloreds. It is only in this 21st century that the extant material is coming to light and is disseminated. The principal means is via webpages, where typescripts and digital images of assorted papers are posted.
What happened? ------------ Albert Einstein became among the most scrutinized people of our era. He supposedly had his phone tapped and mail inspected for Communist subversion. Hell, we dissected his brain, preserved his eyeballs (no, Michael Jackson never got hold of them), and galvanized him back to life for his own birthday party in 2004! How could any aspect of his life be missed or overlooked? How come there has been so little routine knowledge about his relationship with early American black activists? Jerome & Taylor had a couple suggestions but the real discussion and, with vocal conviction, came from the Q&A. I note a few here. Were blacks not able or skilled to preserve their history? Didn't blacks reach the level of caring about their history? Could Einstein/s friendship with duBois and Robeson have turned off biographers? Did the Jews want Einstein wholly as their own saint? Did the nose-to-nose standoff between Jews and blacks distort biographical slant? Did Einstein have trepidation about the blacks that dissuaded bigraphers? There is lots more investigation to do with this emerging aspect of Albert Einstein. That's what the scholars, now numbering among them a good portion of blacks, must dig into.
Now it's time ----------- Taylor & Jerome first discovered the Einstein-black era by speaking with longtime residents of Princeton who recalled those times. They compiled notes and the few vestigial papers. They could not find a home for their work in the usual venues, like colleges and institutes. After the main civil rights movement passed into the implementation phase in the 1970s, they still had trouble getting their findings recognized. They learned of other black supporters who also had some Einstein items. Taylor recounted the 1979 exhibit at the Smithsonian, where items relating to the black experience were omitted from the show. By the 1980s and 1990s, America, certainly in the progressive urban centers, came around to take on black history as an integral part of the overall cultural fabric of the nation. I mentioned Black History Month during the Q&A, which in my office began about 1985; I really don't recall better than that. The 1990s saw in New York an upswell of black participation in American cultural heritage. There was the restoration of Weeksville, a black village in Brooklyn from the early 19th century; delineation of Brooklyn's underground railroad network of the Civil War; contention about the Duffield Place house near MetroTech; black cowboy company -- real effing western cowboys! -- ranging the hills and dales of southern Brooklyn. Examples of black heritage rising from the 1990s beyond Brooklyn include 'Tuskegee airmen', a show about a black aviation unit in World War II; tours of Seneca Village, a black village deleted for building Central Park; jaw-dropping renovation of subway stations designed by black engineers; preservation of African Burial Ground near Foley Square. These are just a few items I pulled off the top of my head just within the City. All of this crescendo of 'new lands' in American history now allow the Jerome-Taylor work to angle for mainstreaming..
Conclusion -------- Forgiving the deflated delivery by Taylor & Jerome, this is surely one of the more thought-rising lectures I was blessed to attend. It ranks up there with the Bohr-Heisenberg and the German atom bomb lectures, It starts to fill in major gaps in history as commonly dispensed in the United States. When I got home I did a web search. Trying 'einstein' + 'blacks' turned up dozens of hits, with 'blacks' being in the modern words of the pages. 'einstein' + 'negros' coughed; I used the modern spelling with no second 'e'. Correcting this to the older epoch got more dozens of hits. 'negroes' was in the original texts transduced to web pages. February of each year is Black History Month. My own outfit, which owes a huge debt to Einstein's work for its very existence, traditionally highlights blacks in the sciences and technology. Yet I can not ever recall any thing at all about the black experience with Albert Einstein. Because the Einstein-black era is so newly revealed, it reasonably will miss this 2006 round of Black History Month. As material gets more organized and disseminated, I can see that the Einstein-black experience will be a routine feature of Black History Month. Not only in my office but as widely around the world as the rest of the Einstein era.