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  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Ralph Bunche

Ralph Johnson Bunche was a giant figure in the field of American foreign policy. As a diplomat who worked in multiple agencies, he proved to be a decisive, creative force in the diplomatic corps. Bunche became the first person of African descent to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in this case for brokering the 1949 armistice agreements in the Middle East. He was also an important figure in the American civil rights movement. I profile Bunche in Chapter 9 of my upcoming book Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement.”

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. When he was a child, his family moved to Toledo, Ohio, and later returned to Detroit as his father, Fred, searched for work. Fred was a barber and Ralph’s mother, Olive, was an amateur musician. The child’s grandmother, born a slave, lived with the family.

His parents were in poor health for much of Ralph’s childhood. When the boy was 10 years old, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in hopes of benefitting from the dry climate. It was to no avail. His mother died soon thereafter, as did an uncle who was assisting his family. His father remarried and abandoned the family. Ralph’s maternal grandmother took him and his two sisters into her home and transported them to live with her in Los Angeles, California.

Ralph learned the value of hard work at an early age. He worked a series of odd jobs to improve the family’s finances, including delivering newspapers, working for a carpet-laying business, and working as a house boy for a movie actor.

The boy’s intellectual prowess was obvious from his earliest years. In high school, he was a gifted debater and a stellar student. He was the valedictorian of his graduating class. Afterward, he enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where he again performed at the top of his class. Bunche graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1927. Again, he served as the class valedictorian.

His community raised money to send Bunche to Harvard University for graduate studies. He graduated from Harvard with a master’s degree in 1928 and a doctorate in political science in 1934. His dissertation, “French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey,” won the Toppan Prize for the best dissertation on comparative politics in Harvard University Department of Government. Bunche was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in political science from an American university.

Even before he earned his doctorate, he taught at Howard University, a historically black college in Washington, DC. He also continued his formal education by studying anthropology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the London School of Economics, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

His first book, World View of Race, was published in 1936. Bunche argued that race is “a social concept” used to achieve social and political goals. Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal later hired Bunche to serve as his chief research associate on the landmark study An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy.

Bunche’s early career was in academe. He served as the chair of the political science department at Howard University. He became the first Black member of the American Philosophical Society in 1950, a scholarly organization co-founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 to “promote knowledge in the sciences and humanities through research, professional meetings, publications, library resources, and community outreach.” He also served as president of the American Political Science Association in 1953-54. Along with these remarkable achievements, Bunche served on the board of overseers for Harvard University from 1960 until 1965. He was a trustee for Oberlin College, Lincoln University, and the New Lincoln School, a K-12 institution in New York City.

During World War II, Bunche worked with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), as a social analyst on colonial affairs. He eventually moved to the U.S. State Department as associate chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs, serving under Alger Hiss. Hiss was a darling of the State Department professional staff who later became embroiled in a controversy over whether he was a Communist agent.

Bunche had a front row seat to many historical events of the era. He was a leader of the Institute of Pacific Relations. He also worked on the planning for the United Nations in San Francisco in 1945. Along with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he assisted in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. He urged Black Americans to seek employment with the UN.

The postwar era saw the end of European colonization. As a leading scholar on decolonization, Bunche spoke out forcefully on the need to provide autonomy for previously subjugated peoples. He met with many anti-colonial leaders and became a prominent voice for democratization. Although he held various positions within the United States government, Bunche did not shy away from criticizing America’s allies. He was especially vocal about Great Britain’s poor record of colonialism, arguing that the nation’s policies were paternalistic and inherently white supremacist.

Bunche devoted much attention to the Arab Israeli conflict beginning in 1947. After Israel became an independent nation and its Arab neighbors deployed violence against the new Jewish state, Bunche was one of many U.S. diplomats who sought to mediate the conflict. His record of denouncing colonialism gave Bunche credibility as an honest broker. He served as the principal secretary of the UN Special Committee on Palestine and later as principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission. He traveled to the Middle East as an aide to Count Folke Bernadotte, who came to mediate the conflict. In September 1948, the Jewish underground Lehi group, a paramilitary organization, assassinated Bernadotte.

Despite the assassination, Bunche soldiered on. As the UN’s chief mediator, he handled the delicate negotiations with finesse and sensitivity. Owing in no small measure to his skills, Bunche helped to reach the 1949 armistice agreements. For his work on the project, Bunche received the 1950 Nobel Prize for Peace. With his international stature greatly enhanced, Bunche worked in many war-torn areas, including Yemen, the Congo, Kashmir, and Cyprus. He became the UN undersecretary general in 1968.

As a Black man living in the United States during the twentieth century, Bunche naturally became concerned about civil rights. Even before he moved on to the United Nations, Bunche assumed leadership positions in several civil rights organizations. Owing to his educational background and his work with Gunnar Myrdal, Bunche became a leading scholar of race in America.

He was an activist as well. He participated in the famous March on Washington in August 1963. Bunche also walked with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. Because of his high-profile activism, Bunche came under scrutiny from the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), although he was never a Marxist or Communist. In fact, the Soviets bitterly criticized Bunche because of his emphasis on developing nations throwing off the shackles of oppression and combating interference from outside countries.

With his international prestige, Bunche frequently brought attention to the inequities of life in America for people of color. Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy offered Bunche appointments that he politely declined because they would require him to work or live in Washington, DC, a heavily segregated city. When he was offered membership in a country club that had initially refused to allow him admittance, Bunche demurred. He believed, quite rightly, that he was being admitted as a token so that the club could not be accused of patent racism.

Bunche married a former student, Ruth Harris, and the couple had three children. Their daughter, Jane, committed suicide in 1966 at age 33. Bunche’s grandson, Ralph J. Bunche III, became general secretary of the Underrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO), an organization created in 1991 to provide a voice to underrepresented and marginalized people around the world.

Even as his health declined during the 1960s, Bunche kept up his work with the United Nations, mediating crises in African and Asian nations. In 1965, Bunche oversaw a cease-fire after war erupted between India and Pakistan. It was one of his final achievements.

Bunche retired from the UN in June 1971. He died on December 9 of the year at the age of 67. He left behind a rich legacy. Aside from winning the Nobel Peace Prize, he earned the Spingarn Medal from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the William J. Donovan Award from the OSS, and the Silver Buffalo Award for his work with the Boy Scouts of America. The UCLA Alumni Association named a scholarship in his honor.

On January 12, 1982, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 20¢ postage stamp in the Great Americans series with Bunche’s likeness. In 1996, Howard University named a building, the Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center after him. The center is the site of lectures on international affairs. In May 1997, the U.S. State Department renamed its oldest federal library after Bunche.

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