May 3, 1946 – Albert Einstein Spoke at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania

In the twenty years before Einstein died, he almost never accepted invitations to speak at universities. In 1946 he broke his self-imposed rule to give an address and accept an honorary degree from a small, traditionally black university near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Einstein had moved to Princeton in 1933 to escape the coming Holocaust in Europe. Princeton was not a haven from racism, however, and while Einstein was an exception, blacks and Jews were generally not welcome. In fact, as Fred Jerome reports (38 J. Blacks in Higher Ed 114, 2002-3):

“As late as September 1942, while United States and Allied troops were battling fascism overseas, the Princeton Herald ‘explained’ that admitting black students to the university, while morally justified, would simply be too offensive to the large number of Princeton’s southern students.”

Albert Einstein in 1946

Albert Einstein in 1946

At the end of the war, when black soldiers returned home after fighting for “freedom and democracy,” they found themselves facing a newly hostile American populace, who resented these soldiers in uniform for having the audacity to consider themselves equal. A wave of anti-black violence began in 1946, resulting in 56 African-Americans dead, mostly veterans.

Racial segregation was the rule in most of America in May 1946, with separate and unequal public and private facilities from housing and schools to buses and beaches not only throughout the South but also in many other parts of the country. Even the blood donated to save lives was collected at racially segregated blood banks (when blacks were allowed to donate at all), with “white” and “colored” blood kept in separately labeled storage units. (Princeton’s Logos Journal, Issue 4.3)

One of the most publicized instances of white resistance to black notions of equality forged in World War II occurred in February 1946, when five hundred Tennessee state troopers with submachine guns surrounded the African-American community of Columbia, Tennessee. The trouble started when a black Navy veteran accompanied his mother to a radio store to complain about a botched repair job. The white repairman (also a veteran) followed him and his mother out of the store, and attacked them as they left the building. Although the black veteran was struck first, he was arrested and jailed on a charge of attempted murder. Hostilities quickly escalated.

More than one hundred black men were arrested. Twenty-seven were charged with rioting and attempted murder and two were shot awaiting bail in the local jail. The riot made national headlines.

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

Three months later, Thurgood Marshall came to town as the lead attorney for the defense. He barely escaped being lynched himself. Einstein publicly joined the “National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee,” which was headed by Eleanor Roosevelt.

Einstein’s speech shortly thereafter at Lincoln University was not a coincidence. At Lincoln University he declared: “The separation of the races is not a disease of colored people, but a disease of white people. I do not intend to be quiet about it.” But according to Fred Jerome, who has written extensively on Einstein’s collaboration with the organization “The American Crusade to End Lynching,” the press largely ignored this speech, letting it sink into “a historical black hole.” [“The American Crusade Against Lynching” was created in 1946 and headed by Paul Robeson. The organization was labeled a “communist front” by the FBI, and members, including Einstein, were branded as communist sympathizers.]

Einstein at Lincoln University in 1946

Einstein at Lincoln University in 1946

Einstein showed great courage in saying and doing what others would not. As he explained in his Lincoln University speech:

“There is … a somber point in the social outlook of Americans … Their sense of equality and human dignity is mainly limited to men of white skins. Even among these there are prejudices of which I as a Jew am dearly 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.”

Speaking out in the face of injustice, torture, oppression, and genocide is still something every American can do. And determining what is not said is as critical as listening to what is. As sociologist Murray Edelman observed, “perhaps the most powerful influence of news, talk, and writing about problems is the immunity from notice and criticism they grant to damaging conditions that are not on the list.” (Edelman, Constructing the Political Spectacle, 1988) It was Einstein’s ability to see what was not obvious, and to share these insights with the world, that made him such a great man.

Einstein with the children of Lincoln University Faculty, May 3, 1946

Advertisements

About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in History, racism and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to May 3, 1946 – Albert Einstein Spoke at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania

  1. Margot says:

    Reading about these events seems amazing today. But it’s all been within my lifetime. (There are some advantages to aging.) We’ve come a long way but still not close to where we need to be. Arizona, etc. is a good example.

    Thanks for another good educational post.

  2. Jenny says:

    You always write such interesting and informative posts! It’s wonderful to hear about people like Einstein standing up for what’s right in spite of potential dangers.

  3. Sandy says:

    I like his moxie! That definitely had to take some courage to stand up to pressures. And he seemed like such a diminutive guy!

  4. Julie P. says:

    Jeez. Another post where I can say I had no idea!

  5. Barbara says:

    I didn’t know this story either, and I’m happy you wrote about it. It has always astounded me when I discover that Jews who were persecuted turn out to be bigots themselves. You’d think someone who had suffered himself would be the first to stand up and say it’s wrong. Good for Einstein – he was a strange little man but I now know he had a big heart and compassion.

  6. Nymeth says:

    I love your blog to bits and pieces, Jill.

    Sometimes it really hits me how RECENT all of this really is.

  7. Lisa says:

    One would definitely not want to do the morally right thing at the risk of offending the Southern students. What the heck? I didn’t know anything about this visit–thanks, once again, for the history lesson!

  8. Jenners says:

    Thanks for sharing this. I didn’t know that about Einstein … makes me realize he is much more than a man who came up with a lot of ideas that I don’t have a chance in hell at ever really comprehending!

  9. Vasilly says:

    What a great post. I had no idea about Einstein’s speech.

  10. Randy says:

    You will not find this speech mentioned in any of the more than one hundred biographies about Albert Einstein. Being a physicist, I had read his biography and knew he was a pacifist, socialist and anti-racist. He was ahead of his time on so many levels. I didn’t know about this speech until I read an article in Radiations the official publication of Sigma Pi Sigma, of which I’m a member. The article is available online at

    http://www.sigmapisigma.org/radiations/2010/einstein_as_citizen_addressing_race_and_racism.pdf.

    and is worth reading.

    Thanks for the post. I’m glad this side of Einstein is getting out.

    • Randy,

      Thanks so much for the reference to that article. Being cynical, I am not very surprised that only certain aspects of Einstein have made it into the popular culture. It is even that way with Martin Luther King, Jr., and you would think his socialist advocacy would actually be in peoples’ memories!

  11. Collins says:

    Makes you wonder about all the other history that has been thrown down the “historical black hole”……

    • Claude Evans says:

      Thank You Dr. Albert Einstein for your INTELLIGENCE, integrity, and courage during what had to a dangerous and difficult time in American history to STAND UP on the right side of history in 1946 and beyond. There are not many today in the year 2019 that possess you defiance, your integrity, and your true intelligence… THANK YOU SIR…!

  12. Lagan Pillay says:

    I find it so encouraging that am not the only guy out there
    over the age of 20 who doesn’t know any of this! Time to learn *about all of it*.

  13. I am 74 and a history major with plus 4000 books plus many library books read and I had not come across Einstein speech at Lincoln University. History is a national protected subject that people are not allowed to know certain embarassing information! Even freshmen college students. More if go to graduate class but it can easily take 50 years for some information to come out. Computers have helped some for those who work at searching. Sometimes even then we just get lucky with other links that lead you to more information.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.