In a game of free association, if I say “Einstein,” what’s your response?
Probably “genius.” Maybe “brilliant.” Possibly even “absent-minded professor.”
But few, if any would say, “social activist” or “human rights advocate,” and virtually nobody would say, “anti-racist.”
Yet, while the whole world acknowledges Einstein’s monumental contributions to science and technology, his contributions to society actually extended far beyond those realms. During the last 22 years of his life, from 1933 to 1955, Einstein lived in Princeton, N.J., and-while J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI conducted a top-secret campaign against him-he was actively and passionately involved in numerous struggles for social justice. At the time, Einstein’s outspoken support for those attacked by fascism abroad and McCarthyism at home often made front-page news.1 But in the nearly half-century since his death, the once front-page news stories have become non-stories, as Einstein has been simultaneously sanctified-named Person of the Century by Time magazine in December 1999-and politically castrated by the American establishment.
But of all the little known aspects of Einstein’s political dimension, the least known is his activism against what he called “America’s worst disease”-racism.
A key part of racism in America is the suppression of news of antiracist activity and the “disappearance” (as in, to make disappear, such as the desaparecidos in Chile) of antiracist heroes from history. (See Aptheker’s Anti-Racism in U.S. History, The First Two Hundred Years, Praeger, 1993.)
Einstein’s case is particularly important-for the racists, important to suppress; for the rest of us, important to resurrect. First because he was, he is Einstein, on any list, one of the most renowned, admired and beloved figures of history, and therefore someone whose statements, actions and passions command a huge worldwide audience.
But Einstein’s anti-racism was significant also because he refused to let red-baiting drive him away from his defense of-and friendship with-men like Du Bois and Robeson, nor from publicly endorsing campaigns to save Willie McGee, the Trenton Six and other anti-frame-up causes organized by the Civil Rights Congress, which defended the Communist Party. Yet in all the hundreds of biographies of Einstein, nowhere will you find the names of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Willie McGee or the Civil Rights Congress.
The almost unique significance of Einstein’s role, is that he was not only anti-racist, not only pro-socialist (See his “Why Socialism?” in vol. I, no. 1 of Monthly Review, May 1949), but he was not the least bit frightened by Robeson’s red glare.
My book, The Einstein File: J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret War Against the World’s Most Famous Scientist (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2002) details the story of Einstein’s anti-racism for the first time. Some excerpts follow2 (extensive references may be found in the book version).
During the last twenty years of his life, Einstein almost never spoke at universities. He considered the honorary-degree ceremonies to which he was frequently invited to be “ostentatious.” Moreover, the abdominal aneurysm that would eventually take his life caused him increasing pain and made it difficult to travel. Given the constant stream of university invitations, he found it easiest to adopt a just-say-no rule. In May 1946, he broke that rule to speak at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Both the year and the choice of school are significant.
About 60 miles from Princeton, Lincoln University was chartered in 1854 as, in the words of its eighth president Horace Mann Bond, “the first institution found anywhere in the world to provide a higher education in the arts and sciences for male youth of African descent.” In 1946, When Dr. Bond invited Einstein to Lincoln, the student body consisted of 265 men. “It was still a small school,” Mrs. Julie Bond, Dr. Bond’s widow, recalls. “But of course, everyone came to hear Einstein. We didn’t have a hall big enough, so we held the ceremony outdoors in the grove.”
“On Friday, May 3rd, a very simple man came to Lincoln University,” one student wrote a few days later in the school newspaper:
His emaciated face and simplicity made him appear as a biblical character. Quietly he stood with an expression of questioning wonder upon his face as President Horace Mann Bond conferred a degree. Then this man with the long hair and deep eyes spoke into a microphone of the disease [racism] that humanity had. In the deep accents of his native Germany he said he could not be silent. And then he finished and the room was still. Later he lectured on the theory of relativity to the Lincoln students.
That night, Albert Einstein went back to Princeton.
Dr. Bond’s son chuckles today when he looks at an old photo of Lincoln faculty members’ children with the famous scientist: “Family lore has Einstein telling me ‘Don’t remember anything that is already written down.’ And although I do not recall this exchange”-he was barely four years old at the time-“I have followed this advice ever since.” (Whether Einstein’s advice helped or not, Julian Bond grew up to become a civil rights activist, State Assemblyman, TV talk-show host and Chairman of the NAACP.)
In accepting the invitation, Einstein clearly intended to send a message to a wider audience. But the media then-like the media since then-had different news priorities. While almost all of Einstein’s public speeches and interviews were widely covered by the major media, in this case, most of the press treated the address by the world’s most famous scientist at the world’s oldest black university as a non-event.
“There is a somber point in the social outlook of Americans,” Einstein reportedly told the Lincoln University audience:
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 clearly 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.
I do not believe there is a way in which this deeply entrenched evil can be quickly healed. But until this goal is reached there is no greater satisfaction for a just and well-meaning person than the knowledge that he has devoted his best energies to the services of the good cause.
To understand the full significance of Einstein’s visit to Lincoln-and of its minuscule coverage-we need to recall the racial situation in America in what might be called “the Bloody Spring of 1946.”
Black GIs came home after World War II in no mood for racism. Despite their segregated, second-class status in the Army, they had put their lives on the line, faced bullets and bombs, and lost arms, legs and buddies, fighting for freedom and democracy. One notable example, the 761st Tank Battalion, known as the Black Panthers, was designated by General Patton to play a key role in the Battle of the Bulge. The all-black unit subsequently fought against German troops in Europe for 183 straight days, capturing or destroying 30 major towns, four airstrips, ammunition dumps and hundreds of armored vehicles and tanks. The Battalion received the Presidential Unit Citation-but not until 1978, after years of letters and requests to the Defense Department. The 761st, like other black units in World War II, adopted as its unofficial insignia “Double V”-for victory over the Nazis in Europe and over racism back home.
But at home the war was far from over; the enemy had only changed uniforms and now wore sheets or Sheriff’s badges-or both. In the first 15 months after Hitler’s defeat, a wave of lynching and other anti-black terror, mostly but not only in the Southern states, killed more than fifty African Americans, with recently returned veterans the targets of some of the most bestial lynch mobs. The resurgent anti-black terror-not seen since the Ku Klux Klan rampages following the return of black soldiers from the first world war, a quarter-century earlier3-included a number police shootings of unarmed civilians, in the North as well as the South. One of the most widely publicized cases occurred in the small town of Columbia, Tennessee:
On the morning of February 25, 1946, a white radio repairman, William Fleming, “slapped, struck or kicked” a black woman, Mrs. Gladys Stephenson, and, according to news reports, “was promptly knocked through a plate glass window by her son James Stephenson,” a 19-year-old Navy veteran recently returned from the Pacific. Both Mrs. Stephenson and her son were arrested. About 6 p.m., a white lynch mob paraded around the jailhouse, and at least some of them then headed towards the black section of town, called Mink Slide. A number of black veterans organized an armed defense of their neighborhood. Two armed white men “under the influence of alcohol” (according to court testimony months later) and four city policemen who went into Mink Slide that night were wounded by gunfire from blacks who were convinced a lynching was about to occur. According to one report, “four or five” men in the white mob were killed, “but the local authorities would not admit to it.”
African Americans firing on white policemen was enough for the governor to rush in 500 State Troopers with submachine guns who attacked Mink Slide, destroying virtually every black-owned business in the four-square-block area, seizing whatever weapons they could find, and arresting more than one hundred black men. Two of the detainees were shot and killed inside the jail by troopers during what police called “a spontaneous outburst.” Of the others, 25 were indicted for “attempted murder.” A young, NAACP lawyer named Thurgood Marshall, chief defense attorney for the 25, angrily declared:
The actions of the Tennessee State troopers in roping off the Negro section of Columbia, Tenn. and firing at will and indiscriminately was closer to German storm troopers than any recent police action in this country.
Shortly after Marshall’s statement appeared in the N.Y. Times in March, Einstein joined the National Committee for Justice in Columbia, Tennessee, headed by Eleanor Roosevelt and including an array of celebrities such as Mary Mcleod Bethune, Col. Roy Carlson (Carlson’s Marine Raiders), Marshall Field, Oscar Hamnmerstein II, Helen Hayes, Sidney Hillman, Langston Hughes, Harold Ickes, Herbert Lehman, Sinclair Lewis, Joe Louis, Hentry Luce, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., A. Phillip Randolph, Artie Shaw, and David O. Selznick. Perhaps because of its political breadth, it is one of the few Einstein political affiliations not included on the FBI’s list of his “Communist front” groups.
With Marshall leading a four-man interracial defense team, 24 of the 25 defendants were acquitted. (The 25th defendant, Lloyd Kennedy, was released after serving ten months of a five-year sentence.) The legal victories came despite two acrimonious trials in segregated Tennessee courtrooms before hostile judges and all-white juries. After the second trial, Marshall himself narrowly escaped from a lynch mob (including local police) that nearly succeeded in murdering the future Supreme Court Justice.
Foretelling its investigations into civil rights abuses during the 1960s, the FBI sent an all-white team of agents to Columbia to interview witnesses, ostensibly about possible violations of civil rights. But African Americans they questioned reported the agents seemed mainly interested in finding out which black people had fired guns. A “top-secret” FBI memo, dated March 2, 1946, ignores the police attack on the black community in Columbia and, without indicating a cause, as if it were describing spontaneous combustion, refers to the events simply as “race riots.” Within less than two weeks, the Bureau produced a 197-page, single-spaced report, citing only white witnesses and totally exonerating the local and state police. The black population was described as threatening, local officials as restrained, and the state police as operating completely within the line of duty.
If Einstein and the other members of the Committee thought their prestige would restrain the lynching, disappointment didn’t keep them waiting long. The total failure of the President, Attorney General or government officials at any level to take action against the state and city authorities behind the Mink Slide attack would beget only more terror. The lynchers could not have asked for a greener light than the FBI’s report. White mobs throughout the south, often aided by police, went on a lynching rampage, targeting primarily World War II veterans.
In the heat of July and August, 1946, the wave of unpunished lynching seemed to swell. In successive weeks, African American veterans J.C. Farmer in Bailey, North Carolina, and Macio Snipes, described as “the only Negro to vote” in his district of Taylor County, Georgia, were shot down by bands of white men. As his mother stood a hundred yards away, Farmer was killed by bullets from a posse of twenty to twenty-five “deputies” in eight cars. An hour earlier, while waiting for a bus he had gotten into a scuffle with a policeman. Snipes was gunned down on the porch of his home by ten white men.
The media missed or ignored a number of such murders,4 but on July 27, a front-page story in the N.Y. Times, which Einstein read every morning, reported one of the more gruesome cases, and lynching in America suddenly became national and international-and unavoidable-news:
GEORGIA MOB OF 20 MEN MASSACRES 2 NEGROES, WIVES; ONE WAS EX-GI
MONROE, Ga., July 26 -Two young Negroes, one a veteran just returned from the war, and their wives were lined up last night near a secluded road and shot dead by an unmasked band of twenty white men.
A Grand Jury heard testimony from 106 witnesses in this case, and then returned no indictments. Another lynching report, two weeks later, described the complicity of local authorities in Louisiana:
John C. Jones, 28, discharged veteran of European services, was found dead two miles from Minden in Dorcheat Bayou. His body had been horribly beaten with “some flat object-such as a wide leather belt or a thick plank,” his face and body burned with a blow torch so that his eyes were “popped” out of his head and his light complexion seared dark. His wrists were mutilated with a cleaver and he had been partially castrated.
It is impossible to imagine that Einstein had not been shaken by these news reports when, in early September, a telegram arrived from Paul Robeson, proposing to set up a group called the American Crusade to End Lynching (ACEL) and to hold a mass rally in Washington on September 23-the anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. The protest, to be led by black veterans, would demand punishment for lynchers and prompt passage of a federal anti-lynching law. W.E.B. Du Bois and several other prominent citizens, white and black, were already on board as ACEL sponsors. Now Robeson was asking Einstein to be co-chairman.
Race had not been a central consideration when Einstein moved to Princeton 13 years earlier. He was seeking a quiet work-space, a violin-playing, pipe-smoking space, and a refuge from media attention. “Into this small university town,” Einstein wrote during his early days in Princeton, “the chaotic voices of human strife barely penetrate. I am almost ashamed to be living in such peace while all the rest struggle and suffer.” It turned out to be more wish than observation, but Princeton seemed-at first-“a banishment to paradise.”
Not that he’d been oblivious to racism in America-in 1931, shortly before moving to America, as we’ve seen, he had joined the campaign to save “the Scottsboro Boys,”5 and the NAACP had published his article in Crisis, expressing admiration for the “determined effort of American Negroes.” Nonetheless, on arriving in Princeton, his most striking impression had to be the contrast with Berlin-the absence of SS agents and the young boys with swastika armbands roaming the streets. Princeton must have promised an enclave, a safe haven. Even the name of the street they’d lived on when they first moved to Princeton-Library Place-symbolized sanctuary.
But anyone living in Princeton in the 1930s and ’40s couldn’t miss the racism. The idyllic little sanctuary turned out to be not so idyllic. On the campus, as at all the Ivy League schools, the University’s quota system allowed only a few Jewish students. Of only two Jewish faculty members, one-Einstein’s good friend Otto Nathan-was fired after teaching economics for just one year, an act Einstein considered blatantly anti-Semitic. And if you were black, whether student or faculty, the university was totally off-limits. Perhaps because it was the southernmost of the Ivy League colleges, Princeton attracted a high percentage of students from Southern states. As late as September, 1942, while US 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.6
The town itself was as racially divided as its movie theater, where whites and blacks sat in separate sections until well after World War II had defeated Hitlerism. The black population, about twenty percent of the town, moved about unobtrusively, mostly outside the white world-a segregated civilization beginning just behind Princeton’s main street and continuing on down to the unpaved “avenues” next to the trolley tracks and past the garbage dump. Until 1947, all Princeton’s African American primary-school children attended the Witherspoon School, as color-coded as any school in Alabama, and on Sunday mornings, segregated prayers arose from the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church. Rumors of “incidents” between blacks and the all-white police force were frequent. Einstein told friends he often heard white townspeople “talking against Negroes.” Robeson, who was born in Princeton, called it a “Georgia plantation town.”
Nor did Princetonians restrict their bigotry to people of color. During his first months there (before the local citizenry decided they would benefit from having a famous Jew in their town) Einstein felt a definite “coldness” towards him-a Jew in what one writer called “that enclave of WASP-dom.”
Another example of Princeton prejudice came on April 16, 1937, when the great diva Marian Anderson gave a concert to a standing-room only audience at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. “Complete artistic mastery of a magnificent voice…from the first Handel aria to the last Negro spiritual,” reported the daily Princetonian, adding, “It is hard to discuss such a performance without the excessive use of superlatives.” Nonetheless, Princeton’s Nassau Inn refused the African American contralto a room. Einstein immediately invited her to stay with him and Margot in the house on Mercer Street. She accepted, and their ensuing friendship lasted for the rest of his life. She stayed with them whenever she came to Princeton. The last time was in January 1955, two months before Einstein died. When she left, he came downstairs, with difficulty, to say good-bye. The world-renowned diva later wrote that she felt “honored,” and that she knew “this was really good-bye.”
After becoming a citizen, Einstein was even more outspoken on racial issues; he told friends he now felt less like a guest in America’s house. Dedicating the Wall of Fame at the 1940 World’s Fair, Einstein said, America “still has a heavy debt to discharge for all the troubles and disabilities it has laid on the Negro’s shoulder…” During the war years, despite the global issues in the air-or perhaps because of them-he helped sponsor the NAACP’s new Defense Fund and supported the campaign to block the extradition of Sam Buckhannon, a refugee from a Georgia chain gang.
But it’s doubtful anyone expected the extent of the post-war racist terror that erupted in America, echoing the horror the world had just defeated. During the first year following the defeat of fascism in Germany and Japan, racist violence in the US had killed 56 blacks-mostly returning veterans. That is only the number of lynched African Americans that was reported to, and reported by, the local police. (In 1941, the last year before the US entered World War II, the number of lynchings reported was four.)
Busy as he was with the new Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, Einstein could not shrug his shoulders at Robeson’s invitation -or at lynching. If his increasing abdominal pains prevented his travel to Washington for the September 23 protest, he would send a letter to President Truman to be delivered by the protest leaders, urging an immediate anti-lynching law. Either way, his answer to Robeson was yes.
Twelve pages of the FBI’s Einstein File concern the American Crusade to End Lynching-considerably more space than most of his affiliations. Perhaps this was because Hoover and his Bureau viewed the anti-lynching campaign-much as they would later view the civil rights movement of the 1960s-as a threat to America’s national security.
The Einstein File’s ACEL section begins with a report from Army Intelligence (G-2), described by the FBI as “a completely reliable source”:
.When in Washington, the delegation planned to call on the White House and national figures to demand action by the administration. A parade was scheduled to be led by colored and white veterans who were to march to the Lincoln Memorial where a national religious ceremony would be held and persons who escaped lynch mobs were to be presented.Dr. Albert Einstein was scheduled to appear.
As with most of Einstein’s political activities, the FBI’s reports on ACEL rely heavily on news stories and other published material:
The Philadelphia Inquirer.dated 9/23/46.stated EINSTEIN wrote a letter to President HARRY S. TRUMAN assailing lynching. This letter was to be delivered to President TRUMAN by a group headed by PAUL ROBESON. The People’s Voice dated 10/5/46 stated in part that EINSTEIN and PAUL ROBESON were co-chairmen of the ACEL.
The government’s anti-Communism policy, most extreme during (but not at all limited to) the 1950s, relied on the argument that the Communists were threatening to take over the world, and a crack-down-with the FBI as watch-dog and pointer-was necessary to stop them. The only thing that mattered in the Bureau’s evaluation of a suspect organization-or a suspect individual like Einstein-was whether or not they collaborated with “Reds” like Robeson. The suggestion that the FBI might investigate lynching itself as a subversive threat to democracy would have been considered a diversion from Hoover’s (and his Bureau’s) main task: catching Communists.
When his illness prevented him from attending the Washington anti-lynching rally, Einstein sent a letter to be delivered to the President by Robeson and the other ACEL leaders, but in view of what occurred at the White House, it’s uncertain that Einstein’s letter was ever handed to Truman.
After the rally, which drew some 3,000 protesters, a multi-racial delegation, including Robeson, Rabbi Irving Miller of the American Jewish Congress and Mrs. Harper Sibley, president of the United Council of Church Women and wife of the former president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, met with Truman in the Oval Office. The gentlest term that might describe their meeting is confrontational. The following exchange emerges from a variety of newspaper accounts, the most detailed in the African American press: Almost as soon as Robeson began reading the group’s statement calling for immediate Executive action to stop the lynch mobs, the President interrupted: The timing was not yet right for an anti-lynching law, he said, and the delegation ought to appreciate the fact that America and Great Britain were “the last refuge of freedom in the world.” Somewhat less than appreciative, Robeson answered that Britain was one of the world’s “great enslavers of human beings.” Truman insisted that the moment was not propitious for a forthright statement from the Chief Executive, according to a report in the leading black weekly, the Chicago Defender, which added:
In terms which left no doubt in the minds of the delegation from the American Crusade to End Lynching, President Truman today emphatically refused to take the initiative to end mob violence and the spread of terrorism in America [declaring] the whole question of lynching and mob violence was one to be dealt with in political terms and strategy.and patience must attend the final solution.
When Mrs. Sibley made a comparison between fascism against the Jews in Europe and fascism in America as levied against Negroes, the President showed impatience and a flare of temper.
Robeson said returning [black] veterans are showing signs of restiveness and indicated that they are determined to get the justice here they have fought for abroad. Robeson warned that this restiveness might produce an emergency situation which would require Federal intervention. The President, shaking his fist, stated this sounded like a threat.
Robeson’s implied ultimatum that if the government would not provide protection, black people would defend themselves was, apparently, too much for Truman who promptly ended the meeting. (Robeson later told the press that his remarks were “not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper the Negro people.”)
The ACEL delegation left the White House without having presented their complete statement-or Einstein’s letter. Nonetheless, Truman or his aides had to have known about the letter. A copy had been mailed to the White House, and it had been quoted in the previous day’s New York Times:
The delegation will deliver to Mr. Truman a letter from Dr. Albert Einstein stating that security against lynching is “one of the most urgent tasks of our generation.
“In the conviction that the overwhelming majority of the people favor security for all against illegal violence,” Dr. Einstein wrote:
“There is always a way to overcome legal obstacles whenever there is an inflexible will at work in the service of so just a cause.”
Although Robeson and the other organizers had hoped for a much larger turnout, the ACEL contributed to the growing movement for anti-lynching legislation. The protest rally received extensive media coverage: the N.Y. Times and Washington Post both headlined their stories with Robeson’s implied ultimatum that the government must act to end lynching “Or Negroes Will.” The African American press, on the other hand, emphasized Truman’s weakness: The Chicago Defender headlined its story, “Truman Balks at Lynch Action” and the Baltimore Afro-American proclaimed: “Robeson Proves Ability to Handle Situation.” The anti-lynching protest and the publicity seemed to spur the NAACP to intensify its own efforts against “Mob Violence.” Refusing to work with Reds like Robeson, the NAACP had boycotted the ACEL protest, but afterwards accelerated a separate, more subdued lobbying effort-including a more cordial meeting with Truman and other top Washington officials.
Despite its ambitious name, the American Crusade to End Lynching was essentially a one-protest organization and ceased activity after its Washington demonstration. But it was a vital part of the ongoing tradition of confrontational struggle-as opposed to total reliance on legal suits and appeals-for civil rights in America. It would be another ten years before Rosa Parks and other working women of Montgomery took on that town’s segregated buses and several more years before tens of thousands of young people joined in mass anti-racist actions, but in 1946 the rumblings had begun that would erupt into the civil rights movement of the 1960’s.
For Einstein and Robeson, although they had met before, the ACEL marked their mutual discovery that they shared a common wavelength. Their bond would grow into an ongoing alliance and a friendship-albeit little known for two such public figures.
The legion of Einstein’s biographers has totally ignored his close ties to W.E.B. Du Bois and Paul Robeson. Hens have more teeth than Einstein’s biographies have references to these two giant figures.
In early February, 1951 a federal Grand Jury indicted Du Bois and four other officials of the Peace Information Center for failure to register with the Justice Department as Soviet agents (under the Foreign Agents Registration Act). It was two weeks before the renowned historian reached the age of 83. Einstein’s FBI file reports on his birthday party:
DINNER TO HONOR W.E.B. DU BOIS
Counter Attack, a weekly newsletter published by the American Business Consultants, Inc. of New York City, on February 16, 1951 stated .that accused “Foreign Agent Du Bois” would be honored at a hotel banquet; that Dr. Du Bois’ “long record of pro-Communist activities had not deterred approximately 200 people (referred to as ‘notables’ in Communist Party press) from tendering him a banquet in honor of his 83rd birthday”; that the dinner was scheduled to be held at the Essex House in New York City on February 23.
Counter Attack stated further that the “notable” sponsors included Dr. Albert Einstein and others.
The February 23 dinner was, obviously, a defense rally for Du Bois as much as a birthday party, and those who attended were making a clear-and bold-political statement. While Einstein’s sponsorship of the dinner/protest was recorded in the FBI’s catalogue of “derogatory information,” the scientist committed another act Hoover would have considered even more un-American had he known about it: Einstein planned to testify at Du Bois’ trial. The prosecution’s presentation was so weak that the judge dismissed the case in mid-trial-Einstein had been scheduled as the first witness for the Du Bois defense.
Between watching Robeson and watching Einstein, Hoover’s agents were able to report on a number of their cooperative “subversive” activities, besides the American Crusade to End Lynching in 1946. Earlier that year, the Einstein File records:
Newark Confidential Informant [number blacked out] advised that the JAFRC [Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee] had a meeting on 1/23/46 at Madison, Wisc., at which time PAUL ROBESON, National sponsor, spoke in behalf of the refugees in Spain. Literature distributed at this meeting set forth the name of EINSTEIN as a national sponsor.
And, in 1947, when Einstein and Robeson worked together on the Presidential campaign of Henry Wallace:
The Chicago Star, daily newspaper of Chicago, Illinois, dated 10/4/47, page 2, contained a photograph of EINSTEIN together with HENRY A. WALLACE, DR. FRANK KINGDON of the Progressive Citizens of America, and PAUL ROBESON. (See photo.)
But there is more to the Einstein-Robeson story. And despite his extensive watchdog apparatus, Hoover appears to have missed the most significant episode.
The two men first met at a concert Robeson gave in Princeton during the war. Einstein had gone backstage to proffer his congratulations, and they discovered they shared both a love for music and hatred for fascism. These were bonds which would grow stronger in the coming years. In September 1947, there was relatively little risk for Einstein to invite Robeson for tea-or even a photo-op with Henry Wallace. To be sure the Red-scare campaign against Robeson had begun-he had been denounced as a subversive by HUAC and the American Legion and barred from auditoriums in Peoria, Illinois and Albany, New York. But he remained one of the country’s most popular figures, and his concerts continued to sell out. The Peoria and Albany bans appeared as just a couple of gray clouds barely foreshadowing the coming storm.
But things changed dramatically with the 1949 assault in Peekskill where hundreds of New York State Police stood by, some smiling, as rock-throwing mobs shouting racist epithets attacked cars and buses leaving a Robeson picnic-concert. After Peekskill, Robeson was denied employment-stage and film offers vanished, commercial concert halls were shut to him, and even high schools and universities barred his appearances. In 1950, the State Department decided that Robeson’s travel abroad was “contrary to the best interests of the United States” and for the next eight years refused to issue him a passport. His friend Lloyd Brown reports that Robeson was even denied auto insurance, and whenever a black church invited him to appear, the minister received a stream of threatening phone calls.
Hoover’s agents shadowed him, tapped his phone, opened his mail, and fed anti-Robeson allegations to HUAC and the Senate Internal Security Sub-Committee. His mammoth FBI dossier contains a long list of his “subversive” affiliations, and reports from Informants on his public speeches. Radio commentators and editorials regularly denounced Robeson as ungrateful to America-which-gave-him-so-much. By the early 1950s, if you read the headlines and listened to news broadcasts anywhere in America, you might well have thought the unbending bass baritone was Public Enemy Number 1.
It was despite-or more likely because of-that atmosphere, that Einstein decided to invite Robeson to visit him again. What was relatively safe in 1947 when Einstein had arranged for the photo at his home with Wallace and Robeson, had become dangerous five years later. Friendship with Robeson was now enough to put you on Hoover’s “un-American” list. So it was anything but a casual, off-hand gesture when Einstein sent him a message saying he’d be delighted if Robeson would drop by.
“Einstein’s invitation was a definite act of solidarity, especially coming after Peekskill,” Lloyd Brown remembers. A writer and Robeson’s longtime friend and colleague, Brown accompanied him on the visit to Einstein’s home in October, 1952. Arriving at the house on Mercer Street after lunch, they were greeted by Helen Dukas who led them upstairs where Einstein was reclining on a bed. His health was deteriorating but, Brown says, his mind was sharp and witty. Recalling how much he had enjoyed Robeson’s concert years earlier, Einstein asked Robeson to be sure to let him and Helen Dukas know about his next appearance in Princeton so they could attend.
Brown thought it only right to advise Einstein that FBI agents were showing up outside Robeson’s concerts to copy down the license numbers of all the cars parked outside. Einstein turned to his secretary and indicated they could attend the concert without being identified since they didn’t have a car. “Of course, we all laughed at the thought of Einstein coming incognito,” Brown says with a chuckle. But behind Einstein’s little joke was a serious commitment -he would not be intimidated from supporting Robeson. It set the tone for their afternoon together.
If Einstein’s invitation had been simply to make a political statement, only an act of symbolic solidarity, the scientist could have ended the discussion after an hour, quite gracefully. Instead, he and Robeson spent the entire afternoon together, engrossed in ideas. “We didn’t leave until it started to get dark outside,” Brown remembers. They talked about everything from music (Einstein regretfully said he was no longer able to play the violin) to what was happening in Africa (Einstein was eager to hear about how people were responding to colonialism), and, of course, resisting McCarthyism at home.
Robeson’s description of the visit-the only written account- provides an insight into the mood of the two men and of the times:
It was good, once again, to clasp the hand of this gentle genius. Recalling our previous meetings when I’d appeared there in concert and in Othello, Dr. Einstein asked about my life today as an artist, and expressed warm sympathy with my fight for the right to travel.
We chatted about many things-about peace, for Dr. Einstein is truly a man of peace; about the freedom struggles in South Africa which interested him keenly; and about the growing shadows… being cast over freedom of thought and expression here at home.
Though he is physically frail and not in good health, one can feel the strength of his spirit and the glowing warmth of his compassion for humanity. There was a note of deep sorrow and concern underlying his comments on what is happening in our land.
As he spoke, one could sense something of what this must mean to Einstein, the giant of science and culture, who was driven from his homeland by the Nazi barbarians and who felt the immeasurable tragedy that his people suffered at their hands…
The two men obviously enjoyed each other’s company. At one point when Robeson left the room, Brown remembers trying to make conversation by saying, “Dr. Einstein it’s really an honor to be in the presence of a great man.” Einstein’s response, with just a touch of annoyance, was: “But you came in with a great man.”
1. In 1953, Einstein urged witnesses to refuse to answer questions from the McCarthy Committee, HUAC and other Congressional “inquisitions,” as he called them. Einstein’s actions were reported on the front page of the NY Times in June and again in December, and were also major news stories around the world.
2. From THE EINSTEIN FILE © 2002 by Fred Jerome. Reprinted by arrangement with St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
3. In 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote: “This is the country to which we Soldiers of Democracy return.. But by the God of heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” (The Crisis, 4/1/19.)
4. Hoping the pressure of international opinion might spur Truman and the Congress to stop the racist terror, two organizations, the National Negro Congress in 1946 and the NAACP in 1947, submitted separate petitions to the United Nations documenting lynchings often unreported by the press. The NAACP had already begun to distance itself from those on the left like Paul Robeson and the National Negro Congress. Ironically, the NAACP’s petition to the UN was written by W.E.B. Du Bois who would soon also be expelled for his left leanings and willingness to work with Communists.
5. The worldwide campaign to save the nine African American teen-agers from Alabama, falsely accused of rape and sentenced to death in 1931, would continue for 19 years before they were all eventually freed. For Einstein, the Scottsboro Case was a harbinger of campaigns to come; for the FBI, it was his first “Communist Front.”
6. One of the trustees of Princeton was Breckenridge Long, anti-Semite and one-time lobbyist for Franco.