“I am a Negro, but I am also an American. This is my country. I own a share in it, I have a vested interest in it. My ancestors helped to create it, to build it, to make it strong and great and rich.” These words were spoken by Dr. Ralph Bunche, a great mediator, thinker, and Nobel laureate. Black History Month is a good time to recognize the accomplishments of this Michiganian.
Seeking justice and harmony among races and nations was Ralph Bunche’s passion in life. The son of a barber, he was born 100 years ago last August in Detroit. “My childhood days were poor days,” Bunche later wrote, but he remembered fondly “hitching my sled in winter onto the tailgates of horse drawn beer trucks; swimming on Belle Isle in the summer . . . [and] rooting for the Tigers …” When he was 10 years old, the family moved to New Mexico. When his parents died two years later, he moved with his grandmother to Los Angeles, where he graduated first in his class both in high school and in college at UCLA.
When he witnessed instances of racism, Bunche always tried to mediate a constructive solution. Once when he earned a spot on UCLA’s freshman basketball team, a bigoted white player protested to the coach. The coach told the white student that there was an easy solution to the problem: “Just go over and turn in your suit.” The white player balked at leaving the team, so the coach teamed him with Bunche as guards, and the two became good friends.
In the midst of his academic work, Bunche developed an appreciation for private philanthropy. His church, his friends, and private foundations gave him support to continue his studies. A fund of a thousand dollars raised by the black community of Los Angeles supplemented a scholarship from Harvard University, where Bunche went on to earn his doctorate in political science. He later joined the political science department at Howard University in Washington, D. C. and served as department chair for 22 years. During Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s, Bunche expressed skepticism about government programs that eroded personal independence and fixed blacks in positions inferior to those of whites.
During World War II, Bunche helped write the charter that founded the United Nations. Just as he believed blacks and whites could work together to resolve many of their differences, so he believed nations could discuss problems and work effectively toward peaceful solutions. He became a master negotiator in Middle East disputes and helped the U.N. carve out the nation of Israel. He arranged four armistice agreements that halted the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and won him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Bunche continued his work with the U.N. and became Undersecretary General in 1967. Meanwhile, throughout the world, the decade of the 1960s brought many challenges to Bunche’s belief that integration was desirable and achievable. “There is,” he said, “a steady tendency toward polarization of the white and non-white peoples of the world which can lead to ultimate catastrophe for all.” But, ever the optimist, he never lost hope.
Bunche opposed the Black Power movement in America because its goal was segregation of the races. “There is really no other goal than integration that will make any practical sense,” he argued. “We do not have to become racists to win our struggle,” he told an NAACP youth convention. “In my judgment, black bigots are no better than the white breed.” He joined forces with Martin Luther King and baseball great Jackie Robinson to promote peaceful integration and an emphasis on character and merit, not government entitlements.
In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell said this of Ralph Bunche: “He showed what the possibilities might be, and he was an inspiration to us all. You didn’t have to be an athlete; you could be somebody who could walk with giants on the face of the earth and represent your country, and the color of your skin made no difference. It was an inspiration to all of America, and especially African Americans.”
When Michigan native Ralph Bunche died in 1971, the world lost a force for peace and freedom, whose contribution to harmony between peoples deserves to be remembered.
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(Dr. Burton Folsom, Jr. is a history professor at Hillsdale College and senior fellow in economic education with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Michigan. More information is available at www.mackinac.org. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.)