The Quiet Activist: Ralph Bunche

By Lee, Eleanor | Black Issues in Higher Education, February 1, 2002 | Go to article overview
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The Quiet Activist: Ralph Bunche

Lee, Eleanor, Black Issues in Higher Education

The name Ralph Bunche is not heard much today. And those who are familiar with Bunche are often a little sketchy about what exactly he did. But after World War II, Dr. Ralph Bunche, American scholar and statesman, was a household name. He became Undersecretary General of the United Nations, and his work in drafting sections of the U.N. charter helped bring independence to most of the colonized world. In 1950, Bunche became the first person of color to earn the Nobel Peace Prize, honored for facilitating a peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Other contenders for the prize were Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Albert Schweitzer and George C. Marshall.

"Ralph Bunche was a pioneer in strategies in peacekeeping; he was a master of conflict resolution. But he did more for the Black cause than about anyone for his work in decolonization," says William Greaves, producer and director of the acclaimed PBS documentary on Bunche's life.

The film, Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, was based on a 1993 biography by Sir Brian Urquhart, Bunche's close friend at the United Nations.

"Bunche did sort of drop off the radar screen," says Greaves, who is trying to make sure all Americans -- not just African Americans -- know what an important historical figure he was.

"I think we've lost that sense of him because his accomplishments haven't lived in Black culture or academia," says Dr. Ronald Walters, professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and the author of six books, including African American Leadership. "He's not known for fighting racism. He was in international relations. He was in the State Department, and that was an exclusive place."

But Bunche, indeed, fought racism, and he fought it on a global level. Walters says Bunche's work actually helped stimulate the civil rights movement here in America.

Bunche was, by all accounts, an extraordinary person from early on. Born in Detroit in 1903, he moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was young. He excelled at school and sports, and was valedictorian of his high school class. He won a scholarship to UCLA, where in 1927 he graduated summa cum laude and delivered the valedictory address. Bunche entered Harvard on a scholarship to do graduate work in political science. Upon graduating, he turned down an offer to remain at Harvard and accepted a teaching position at the premier African American institution, Howard University in Washington, D.C.

"Ralph Bunche was more of a radical at Howard University," says Walters, adding that if Bunche had remained in academia he might have been known for his work in American civil rights.

"He wouldn't stand for any foolishness," says Greaves.

In fact, in high school Bunche failed to receive a certain academic medal that rightfully should have been his. Instead, it went to a White student. Bunche was angry and thought about stopping his education but his family wouldn't let him. He learned how to pave his own road to success.

While at Howard, Bunche fell in love with and married one of his students, a schoolteacher who took night classes at Howard.

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