Albert Einstein Gives a Speech Praising Diversity & Immigrants’ Contributions to America (1939)

There have been many times in Amer­i­can his­to­ry when cel­e­bra­tions of the country’s mul­ti-eth­nic, ever-chang­ing demog­ra­phy served as pow­er­ful coun­ter­weights to nar­row, exclu­sion­ary, nation­alisms. In 1855, for exam­ple, the pub­li­ca­tion of Brook­lyn native Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself offered a “pas­sion­ate embrace of equal­i­ty,” writes Kath­leen Kennedy Townsend, “the soul of democ­ra­cy.” We can con­trast the vibran­cy and dynamism of Whitman’s vision with the vio­lent nativism of the anti-immi­grant Know-Noth­ings, who reached their peak in 1850. The move­ment was found­ed by two oth­er New York­ers, gang leader William “Bill the Butch­er” Poole and writer Thomas R. Whit­ney, who asked in one of his polit­i­cal tracts, “What is equal­i­ty but stag­na­tion?”

Almost 100 years lat­er, we see anoth­er nation­al­ist move­ment tak­ing hold, not only in Europe, but in the States. Before the U.S. entered World War II, its views on Nation­al Social­ist Ger­many were decid­ed­ly ambiva­lent, with glow­ing por­traits of its leader pub­lished through­out the 30s, and a siz­able Nazi pres­ence in the U.S. From 1934 to 1939, for exam­ple, Ger­man groups in the U.S. orga­nized mas­sive ral­lies in Madi­son Square Gar­den (see the first mass meet­ing of the “Friends of New Ger­many” above). Addi­tion­al­ly, the Ger­man-Amer­i­can Bund pro­mot­ed the Nazi Par­ty through­out the U.S. with 70 dif­fer­ent local chap­ters. These orga­ni­za­tions held Nazi fam­i­ly and sum­mer camps in New Jer­sey, Wis­con­sin, Penn­syl­va­nia…. “There were forced march­es in the mid­dle of the night to bon­fires,” says his­to­ri­an Arnie Bern­stein, “where the kids would sing the Nazi nation­al anthem and shout ‘Sieg Heil.’”

Need­less to say, these scenes made a num­ber of minor­i­ty groups and immi­grants par­tic­u­lar­ly ner­vous, espe­cial­ly Jews who had just escaped from Europe. One such immi­grant, physi­cist Albert Ein­stein, had made the U.S. his per­ma­nent home in 1933 when he accept­ed a posi­tion at Prince­ton after liv­ing as a refugee in Eng­land. He would go on to become a force­ful advo­cate for equal­i­ty in the U.S., speak­ing out against the racial caste sys­tem of seg­re­ga­tion. In 1940, Ein­stein gave a lit­tle-known speech at the New York World’s Fair to inau­gu­rate an exhib­it that paid “homage to the diver­si­ty of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion.” On the dis­play, called the “Wall of Fame,” were inscribed “the names and pro­fes­sions of hun­dreds of the nation’s most notable ‘immi­grants, Negroes and Amer­i­can Indi­ans.’” (See the first page of the typed list above, and the full list here.)

Ein­stein’s speech comes to us via Speech­es of Note, a new sib­ling of two favorite sites of ours, Let­ters of Note and Lists of Note. Below, you can read the full tran­script of the speech, in which Einstein—having adopt­ed the coun­try as it had adopt­ed him—-declaims, “these, too, belong to us, and we are glad and grate­ful to acknowl­edge the debt that the com­mu­ni­ty owes them.”

It is a fine and high-mind­ed idea, also in the best sense a proud one, to erect at the World’s Fair a wall of fame to immi­grants and Negroes of dis­tinc­tion.

The sig­nif­i­cance of the ges­ture is this: it says: These, too, belong to us, and we are glad and grate­ful to acknowl­edge the debt that the com­mu­ni­ty owes them. And focus­ing on these par­tic­u­lar con­trib­u­tors, Negroes and immi­grants, shows that the com­mu­ni­ty feels a spe­cial need to show regard and affec­tion for those who are often regard­ed as step-chil­dren of the nation—for why else this com­bi­na­tion?

If, then, I am to speak on the occa­sion, it can only be to say some­thing on behalf of these step-chil­dren. As for the immi­grants, they are the only ones to whom it can be account­ed a mer­it to be Amer­i­cans. For they have had to take trou­ble for their cit­i­zen­ship, where­as it has cost the major­i­ty noth­ing at all to be born in the land of civic free­dom.

As for the Negroes, the coun­try has still a heavy debt to dis­charge for all the trou­bles and dis­abil­i­ties it has laid on the Negro’s shoul­ders, for all that his fel­low-cit­i­zens have done and to some extent still are doing to him. To the Negro and his won­der­ful songs and choirs, we are indebt­ed for the finest con­tri­bu­tion in the realm of art which Amer­i­ca has so far giv­en to the world. And this great gift we owe, not to those whose names are engraved on this “Wall of Fame,” but to the chil­dren of the peo­ple, blos­som­ing name­less­ly as the lilies of the field.

In a way, the same is true of the immi­grants. They have con­tributed in their way to the flow­er­ing of the com­mu­ni­ty, and their indi­vid­ual striv­ing and suf­fer­ing have remained unknown.

One more thing I would say with regard to immi­gra­tion gen­er­al­ly: There exists on the sub­ject a fatal mis­com­pre­hen­sion. Unem­ploy­ment is not decreased by restrict­ing immi­gra­tion. For unem­ploy­ment depends on faulty dis­tri­b­u­tion of work among those capa­ble of work. Immi­gra­tion increas­es con­sump­tion as much as it does demand on labor. Immi­gra­tion strength­ens not only the inter­nal econ­o­my of a sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed coun­try, but also its defen­sive pow­er.

The Wall of Fame arose out of a high-mind­ed ide­al; it is cal­cu­lat­ed to stim­u­late just and mag­nan­i­mous thoughts and feel­ings. May it work to that effect.

The speech is remark­able for its egal­i­tar­i­an­ism. The exhib­it works more or less as a “who’s who” of notable personalities—all of them men. Of course, Ein­stein him­self was one of the most notable immi­grants of the age. And yet, his ethos is Whit­man­ian, cel­e­brat­ing the mul­ti­tudes of labor­ers and artists “blos­som­ing name­less­ly” and those who have “remained unknown.” The coun­try, Ein­stein sug­gests, could not pos­si­bly be itself with­out its diver­si­ty of peo­ple and cul­tures. That same year, Ein­stein would pass his cit­i­zen­ship test, and explain in a radio broad­cast, “Why I am an Amer­i­can.” 

via Speech­es of Note

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten as Albert Ein­stein Calls for Peace and Social Jus­tice in 1945

Albert Ein­stein Express­es His Admi­ra­tion for Mahat­ma Gand­hi, in Let­ter and Audio

Albert Ein­stein Explains How Slav­ery Has Crip­pled Everyone’s Abil­i­ty (Even Aristotle’s) to Think Clear­ly About Racism

Rare Audio: Albert Ein­stein Explains “Why I Am an Amer­i­can” on Day He Pass­es Cit­i­zen­ship Test (1940)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • SimplyFred says:

    There are 17 mil­lion under­em­ployed and unem­ployed sci­ence, math and com­put­er trained young peo­ple in Amer­i­ca. Their stu­dent loan debt is a gigan­tic bur­den upon them­selves, their par­ents and tax­pay­ers in gen­er­al. What’s the cause?

    For­eign­ers here in Amer­i­ca on the H 1 B Visa.

    We need a fed­er­al law order­ing for­eign­ers out of Amer­i­ca as soon as a native born sim­i­lar­ly edu­cat­ed Amer­i­can walks in their office.

  • Nathan says:

    What strikes me after read­ing Ein­stein’s remarks is that we seem to be miss­ing two essen­tial com­po­nents to have a thought­ful and pro­duc­tive dis­cus­sion about civics today:

    1. The pow­er bro­kers of our age are glob­al influ­encers with lim­it­less cap­i­tal and no voice in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.Apple and Face­book do not donate bal­let schools, can­cer wings at health­care cen­ters, etc..

    2. Plat­forms that spark the imag­i­na­tion and inspire us to think beyond our­selves, like the World’s Fair of the past, are glar­ing­ly miss­ing at best.

    Our cyn­i­cism is well found­ed in the lack of action from our pub­lic insti­tu­tions. We are ready to cel­e­brate diver­si­ty at the micro lev­el but have grown tired of the self­ish sanc­ti­mo­nious opin­ions from mate­ri­al­is­tic pri­vate suc­cess sto­ries at the macro lev­el.

  • David says:

    States’s spend­ing on high­er edu­ca­tion nation­wide is down and tuitions in pub­lic col­leges has risen. The cause of the stu­dent loan debt is for-prof­it col­leges and lack of sup­port to pub­lic edu­ca­tion.

  • Steven Gibbs says:

    The author is incor­rect in that the list is not exclu­sive­ly men. Augus­ta Sav­age was an out­stand­ing sculp­tor and a female!

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