Ralph Bunche: American Diplomat

By Henry, Charles P. | The Crisis, July/August 2004 | Go to article overview
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Ralph Bunche: American Diplomat

Henry, Charles P., The Crisis

"There are some in the world who are prematurely resigned to the inevitability of war. Among them are the advocates of the so-called 'preventive war,' who, in their resignation to war, wish merely to select their own time for initiating it. To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of war-mongering. The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save the peace. The world has ample evidence that war begets only conditions which beget further war."

These words were not from a critic of the current "preventive war" in Iraq, but from the Nobel Peace lecture delivered by Ralph Johnson Bunche in 1950. Bunche was the first person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize, yet his legacy is largely forgotten today. Aug. 7 concludes a yearlong celebration of the 100th anniversary of his birth in Detroit. While Bunche's centennial is a milestone in history, his views on race, class and international diplomacy still possess remarkable currency.

Perhaps no two American figures were more global in their thinking on race than Bunche and W.E.B. Du Bois, the founding editor of this magazine. Both witnessed the role of the "Cold War" in pressuring the United States government and ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court to end the apartheid doctrine of "separate but equal" in the 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. In fact, the Brown ruling led Bunche, Martin Luther King Jr. and others to be overly optimistic about integration in the United Sates.

That year, at the 45th annual NAACP convention in Dallas, Bunche was "quite convinced that there are a great many citizens of the South who are restrained only by the laws from giving expression to their instinctive democratic impulses as regards relations with their darker fellowmen." He believed Brown would be implemented because Americans are law abiding. Bunche's optimism in the legal system was a sharp break from his "radical pessimism" as a young scholar.

Before World War II, Bunche, a young Howard University political science professor, thought that "law and court decisions concerning the rights of a minority group such as the Negro, no matter how bold and forthright they may be, are relatively ineffectual when they are confronted with deep-seated prejudice in the mores of the dominant group." Moreover, Bunche and two of his Howard colleagues, economist Abram Harris and sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, had been among the NAACP's harshest critics.

In late August 1933, Bunche and 32 other young Black intellectuals gathered at the estate of NAACP president Joel Spingarn in Amenia, N.Y., to discuss the organization's response to the Great Depression. Harris, Frazier and Bunche attacked the racial provincialism of the older NAACP leaders such as Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson. They wanted the NAACP to forge alliances with White labor and address the economic needs of the Black masses. Their advice was ultimately rejected, although Du Bois himself would later split with the NAACP over some of the same issues raised by the young radicals.

Bunche combined activism with remarkable scholarly production in the mid-1930s. When he finished his prize-winning dissertation titled "French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey" at Harvard in 1934, Bunche became the first African American in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in political science and one of the few Americans with expertise in African colonial policy.

He quickly turned his African expertise into a withering polemic on colonial policy in particular and White supremacy in , general in A World View of Race, published in 1936. Part of an adult education series edited by Alain Locke, A World View of Race is notable in its comparative analysis of race and its use of the concept of "social" race, which emphasizes the arbitrary, subjective and environmental aspects of racial construction.

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