Pioneer for Peace: Ralph Bunche

By Clark, Susan | Humanities, January/February 2001 | Go to article overview

Pioneer for Peace: Ralph Bunche


Clark, Susan, Humanities


He invented the peacekeeping force.

He engineered the dismantling of the world's great colonial empires.

He planned the first march on Washington for civil rights.

He founded the political science department at Howard University. There is a monument to him across from the United Nations building in New York City, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan keeps his picture on the office wall.

And yet, most Americans cannot tell you anything about him. They may know his name: Ralph Bunche. Some may know that he was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. For most, however, his image is far from vivid, and very few people have any idea of the scope of his contributions.

That may change with the airing on PBS of Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey. The film is based on the biography bearing the same title, written by Bunches longtime colleague at the UN, Sir Brian Urquhart. Urquhart says one reason for Bunches surprising obscurity is his own attitude toward his accomplishments: "Bunche had the attitude that a public servant was a public servant, and that the whole point was not to get a lot of recognition or acclaim but to get the job done." He adds, "He's the only person I've ever heard of who tried to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize, I because he felt he was simply doing a job and he wasn't out for prizes." In the end, Ralph Bunche did accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for negotiating the Armistice Agreements between the Arab nations and Israel.

The film traces Bunche's life from his birth in Detroit to parents who were fairly well-educated and accomplished, but who spent a number of years in poverty and battling ill health. Young Ralph's mother died when he was thirteen, shortly after his father deserted the family; his grandmother moved the family to Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, Ralph became a star student and athlete, and although he was denied admission to a city-wide honor society because of his race, he graduated first in his class and went to UCLA on an athletic scholarship. He earned his master's from Harvard, and was invited to establish a political science department at Howard University. At Howard, he became part of an elite group of scholars who sought answers to the problems afflicting people of color in the United States and in the rest of the world.

He returned to Harvard on a fellowship, becoming the "first Negro" in the United States to receive a Ph.D. in political science. His dissertation examined French colonial administration and was based on field work in Togo and Dahomey.

Doing this work showed him the devastating consequences of colonialism, and brought into sharp focus the relationship of colonialism and racism. His findings were published in 1936 as A World View of Race, in which he showed how the two institutions supported each other, and denounced the growing influence of fascism and Nazism.

He returned to Howard, where he continued his civil rights work, and was one of the founders of the National Negro Congress. Along with A. Philip Randolph, he organized a march on Washington to protest job discrimination in the defense industry in 1941. President Franklin Roosevelt's administration was so disturbed by the prospect of such a march that he issued an executive order on fair employment in the defense industries--and the march was canceled. …

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