The Quiet Activist
Documentary highlights Bunche’s contributions to world peace, international relations
By Eleanor Lee Yates
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. They had three children. A few years later, Bunche returned to Harvard to work on his doctorate. He wrote his dissertation on colonialism in Africa, a subject that influenced the rest of his life’s work. Bunche spent time in Africa, seeing conditions firsthand. His dissertation on what he learned won the top award in the political science department.
Bunche returned to Howard University to teach. But when the United States entered World War II, he was invited to join the Office of Strategic Service as an analyst on Africa. He hesitated to leave academia, but his knowledge was needed against the Nazi campaign in North Africa.
Following World War II, Bunche was offered a position in the State Department, an opportunity that paved the way for his U.N. career.
“He was affable. He mixed well in a crowd. That was part of the secret of his success,” says Walters, who like Bunche, served as chairman of the political science department at Howard. Bunche parlayed his social skills into negotiating skills.
“Bunche was a doer, a social engineer, a mover and shaker without the rhetoric,” says Greaves. “He was quietly going about trying to make the U.S. gravitate to the creed in the Declaration of Independence.”
Greaves met Ralph Bunche briefly in 1949 when Greaves was a young Broadway actor and Bunche came backstage for a brief visit. When Greaves heard Urquhart was writing a book on Bunche’s life, he knew he had to do the documentary. Work began in 1991, with 12 scholars doing research. It was a challenge, Greaves says, because Bunche worked so much behind the scenes.
During the research, Greaves came across many surprises, such as learning that Bunche had a big hand in drawing up the Atomic Energy Agency under U.N. auspices.
“Bunche was able to achieve so much because he was very adept at walking the color line. It seems to me that he knew how to speak to both Black and White audiences and how to keep them happy,” says Dr. Jonathan Holloway, assistant professor of history and African American Studies at Yale University. “Some progressive Blacks considered this kind of performance the work of a ‘sell out,’ but I think that’s too simple a construction. It’s important to remember that Whites had so much power in Bunche’s era that one had to make a choice about how to gain access to that power: Agitate from the outside and completely capitulate to the system or find a way to appear desirable and pleasing to those with power while simultaneously working toward true civil equality. This last strategy might be considered ‘boring from within.’ This is also a strategy that appears invisible to outside agitators. But I honestly think that this is the strategy that Bunche pursued with great effectiveness,” Holloway says.
Bunche, who remained active in the United Nations almost to the end of his life, died in 1971 of a stroke at the age of 68.
To obtain Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey and related teaching tools, call (800) 874-8314 or visit <www.ralphbunche.com>.
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