Ralph Bunche and the Responsibilities of the Public Intellectual*

Article excerpt

Drawing from the authoritative sources on Ralph Bunche's early years in the academy, his personal papers, and his publications from the 1930s, this essay discusses Bunche's political philosophies and how they were informed by the social realities of the world in which he and other Black scholars lived. This essay urges readers to look beyond his important international work in the second half of his career to his earlier years when he repeatedly challenged public and private orthodoxies in service of a larger ideal of a broad and universal humanity.

Ralph Bunche is remembered as one who frowned on confrontation. Internationally famous for his activities as a peace-broker for the Middle East, Bunche has gone down in history as a natural mediator-one who held his opinions closely and was skilled at political neutrality. Indeed, over the last 30 years of his life, as the modern civil rights movement emerged and then matured, an increasing number of activists thought Bunche was far too adept at avoiding political turmoil. In 1941, his colleague at Howard University, Arthur P. Davis, had only disparaging words for Bunche. Making reference to the hair coverings that allowed one to distinguish the field slaves from those in the plantation house, Davis observed, "There [are] bandana-handkerchief-headed Negroes, and silk-handkerchief-headed Negroes, but Ralph is a cellophane-handkerchief-headed Negro-you have to get off at a certain angle to see him" (Logan diary quoted in Janken, 1993, p. 207). W.E.B. DuBois chimed in as well, confiding to Howard University historian Rayford Logan that "Ralph Bunche is getting to be a white folks' 'nigger'" (p. 206). During the late 1960s, Bunche's do-good image frustrated such young Black radicals as Stokely Carmichael, who, when having Bunche's success offered as an example of civil rights progress, responded, "You can't have Bunche for lunch!" Other progressive Black leaders held similar views; Adam clayton Powell and Malcolm X dismissed Bunche as an "international Uncle Tom" (cited in Rivlin, 1990, p. 23).

Standing in stark contrast to the image of Ralph Bunche as the embodiment of the political establishment and a polished conciliator is the reality of a young intellectual who deplored capitalism on moral grounds and who openly questioned the status quo while urging others to do the same. Consider the fact that DuBois, who, by 1941, thought Bunche a "white folks' nigger," believed eight years earlier that Bunche was part of the vanguard of young, progressive Black American intellectuals.

DuBois's belief in Bunche's vanguardism grew from the fact that for the better part of the 1930s Bunche urged everyone he could-from interracial betterment organizations to graduate students at Princeton to the federal government-to address the needs of the working class before all else. He organized pickets of the Department of Justice, defended Howard University student protests at the United States Capitol, led a boycott against the segregation policy of Washington's National Theater, and helped organize the National Negro Congress (NNC; Holloway, 2002). During these years, he remained fiercely antiracialist, always trying to change the debate over the race problem in the United States into one that revolved around class. Through it all, Bunche never hesitated to criticize intellectuals and other "respectable types" who refused their moral obligations and tried to remain above the fray.

By looking back over his 1930s work, we can discern several issues about which Bunche never wavered. He did not relent in his desire to eliminate what he termed "racialism" and "racialist thought"; he remained a devout believer in the important role unfettered intellectuals and universities had to play in the modern world; and he maintained an abiding faith in the promise of American democracy. In fact, if one can find any change in his opinions on these matters, it would only be the increased intensity of his feelings. …