Usually, when I delve deeper into the lives of famous figures and days gone past, I end up surfacing with a dirty, uneasy feeling. There’s Margaret Sanger and her support of eugenics, for example, a huge disappointment for me when I realised that the woman I’d heralded as an icon and important figure in the early push for reproductive freedom was involved in the movement for selfish, racist, classist, ableist reasons. She’s not the only historical figure who played a key role in social justice movements but who didn’t necessarily have the most enlightened approach to the people she was claiming to help.
There’s something about seeing our icons fall that’s always upsetting, even though we should know better. And that’s why I’m always tremendously excited to find out something good about someone, in a way that’s almost pathetic: Some indicator that there is, in fact, a shred of hope for humanity and some people did the right thing even if it was difficult. Evidence of goodness also stands as proof, for me, that ‘well, it was just like that at the time’ or ‘everyone thought that way’ are false arguments, because some people didn’t think ‘that’ way and were fighting to change society.
When we say that people with offensive views and ideas were just products of their time, we neatly ignore the people who were alive and working during the same time against the very ideas propagated by the people who ‘couldn’t help themselves.’ One such person was Albert Einstein, who wasn’t just a noted pacifist, but a passionate anti-racist. He identified racism as a white problem, and noted that the white community needed to be responsible for fixing it.
He made anti-racist speeches, visited historically Black schools and colleges, supported local communities of colour, and joined forces with Paul Robeson to fight fascism, segregation, and lynchings. Throughout his lengthy career, he was deeply involved with racial issues, and this is something contemporary media rarely covered, and something I knew nothing about until it flickered across my radar on Twitter, as these things so often do. There is, in fact, an entire book looking at Einstein’s relationship with race and America’s racial problems, which underscores the huge body of material the writers had to work with.
It is perhaps not surprising that Einstein’s contributions to anti-racism were erased at the time. It was easy to focus on the media-friendly physicist who amazed people with his mind, and to quietly skate around details of his personal life. His work can’t have made contemporary media comfortable, either, as he was unafraid when it came to specifically confronting white complicity and talking about what whites needed to do. In an era when fascism was on the rise in the US, eugenics was culturally accepted, and the nation was still firmly enforcing Jim Crow, segregation, and other outright racism, Einstein stood out as a banner in the cultural landscape.
That made him all the braver than modern-day white anti-racists, who are simply building on the groundwork that other people have established (often without credit). Einstein worked side by side with the Black community, and he spoke openly to people of all races about his desire for an end to racism and racialised violence — but he was careful not to pin the blame on communities of colour. Instead of positioning himself as a charitable do-gooder helping to bridge the gaps or bring people of colour into modern society, he saw himself much as the opposite, it would seem: He spoke as a man who wanted to lead white people to the path of behaving responsibly and with respect towards their fellow human beings.
Yet, this can’t have made his media followers very comfortable at the time, as he was challenging the status quo in a truly radical way, along with other early white anti-racists who were ready to take responsibility for their community. As the years progressed, therefore, this part of his history was steadily and quietly erased, making it harder and harder to find information about it. It’s a great pity, because even as Einstein was revered and beloved for his work in physics, he should by right also have been recognised as a civil rights icon, and should have been a figure of much interest to people working on and discussing early civil rights pushes.
Today, the fact that we still don’t know about this fascinating and utterly engaging aspect of Einstein’s personality and life is nothing short of shameful, and it’s an indictment of our own society. Decades later, we still can’t face up to our race problems as a society, and that means that we can’t honour the contributions of early civil rights crusaders. To admit that Einstein was involved in anti-racist work, after all, is to admit that this is an issue which has been going on for decades, and that far from being a radical and new thing, civil rights and equal access to society have always been important causes — important to abolitionists in the 19th century, important to Einstein and people like him in the early 20th, important today as racism becomes slippery, sliding between the cracks and leaving its stain on society.
The true story of Einstein makes me wonder how many other fascinating stories I’m missing, how many other people in different eras were fighting the good fight without recognition. Trailblazers are always there, speaking up and pushing for change before the rest of society is ready to acknowledge them, and that means that all of us are accountable for our own bigoted views: We can’t claim to be products of our time, not when the people of our time are actively rejecting the busted ways of thinking we carry with us.
Image: Albert Einstein painted portrait, thierry ehrmann, Flickr.