When Albert Einstein announced his “Theory of Relativity” 100 years ago, it solidified the German-born scientist’s legend. But what some may not know is that Einstein was also a staunch supporter of civil rights causes and once called racism a “disease of white people” in a speech.
In 1946, Einstein was invited to Lincoln University to offer a commencement speech to its students and to also accept an honorary degree. The speech was a significant moment as Einstein, who was in poor health, famously refused speaking engagements and honorary degrees. Einstein used the platform of a predominantly Black college to speak to students about racism, something he faced as a Jew living in war-torn Germany.
Einstein arrived in the United States in 1933 and began teaching at Princeton University, a position he held until his death 22 years later. Einstein fled Nazi Germany ahead of the genocide of what various reports indicates was up to a 6 million Jews. While at Princeton, Einstein began to notice that Blacks in America were treated similarly to how Jews were treated in Germany.
Einstein was rumored to have joined the NAACP in 1933 when he arrived to America, and another unconfirmed but account was that he supported the nine black “Scottsboro Boys” of Alabama, who were falsely accused of assaulting two white women.
He was close to W.E.B. Du Bois, a co-founder of the NAACP, so close that Einstein elected to stand as a character witness in Du Bois’ 1951 trial when the federal government accused the scholar of being a foreign agent.
Actor Paul Robeson and Einstein struck up a friendship in 1935, and the pair remained friends for two decades. Aligned by their mutual distaste for fascist regimes, the two would also work together in the fight to eliminate lynching in response to a series of racially-motivated murders of Black soldiers who returned from World War II.
Another unconfirmed story that has persisted in some fashion is that when famed opera singer Marian Anderson was refused a stay at a Princeton hotel Einstein opened his home to her and did so every time she visited the area.
Given the climate of the United States at the time, much of Einstein’s connections with civil rights received little fanfare. None of the major outlets carried news of his speech and only African-American newspapers covered the event.
Einstein died at Princeton Hospital after the rupture of an abdominal aortic aneurysm on April 18, 1955. He was 76. Einstein’s life could have possibly been saved with surgery, but he believed prolonging life in such a way was a selfish choice.