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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 579

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This is the grave of Ralph Bunche.

Born in Detroit in 1904, Bunche didn’t have a great childhood. His father was a barber and moved around a lot for work, often leaving the family in quite a bit of poverty. They moved to Toledo when Ralph was a child. Soon after, everyone went back to Detroit except his father. The family continued moving around and the father would follow, but not live with them. That included a time in Albuquerque, where Ralph lived with his grandmother. By this point, his mother was dying and then his uncle committed suicide. In 1918, his grandmother with Ralph and his sister to Los Angeles. His father disappeared at this point and they never met again.

Bunche thrived in Los Angeles. A brilliant young man, he was the best student in his high school and won a scholarship to UCLA. He was valedictorian of his class in 1927. He went to graduate school at Harvard and got a Ph.D. in political science. Even before his finished his doctorate in 1934, he was teaching at Howard University, the historically black school in Washington, D.C. He published his first book in 1936, World View of Race. Bunche became one of the leading black scholars and political figures of his generation. He went through a brief Marxist phase in these years, but moved more toward a racial liberalism. He worked on civil rights issues, picketing against segregation in Washington as early as 1936. He was an important contributor to Gunnar Myrdal’s 1940’s study, An American Dilemma, leading the research on this groundbreaking sociological study of race relations in the U.S. Bunche wrote a bunch of it too, which reflected the beliefs of New Deal liberals that democracy would defeat racism in the long run.

Like many leaders, white or black, Bunche used his talents during World War II to fight against fascism. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services from 1941-43 as the senior social analyst on Colonial Affairs, an increasingly important issue as the war came to an end and the post-colonial world would start emerging around the world. He worked closely with Alger Hiss in the Institute of Pacific Relations, which was a left internationalist NGO working on connecting the nations of the Pacific Rim, one that later was investigated by the anti-communist thugs of the 1950s. More broadly, Bunche came to see colonialism as the key issue of the world after World War II and moreover one that deeply impacted African-Americans within the United States, nearly as much as people who lived in European colonies in Africa. Racism was a global problem and Bunche urged anyone who would listen to see it in that way and create international fights for equality.

Bunche’s work on internationalism led him to play a key role in the early United Nations. He was at Dumbarton Oaks, which planned the UN, and then the founding conference in San Francisco. He worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt and others to formulate the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. For Bunche’s now internationalist liberalism, the UN was a chance for black achievement and he urged African-Americans to get jobs with the UN and use the organization to push for equality at home and abroad.

Bunche took all this very seriously. He was a leading player in the creation of Israel. He was initially an assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine. In 1948, he was the chief aide to the Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte, who the UN appointed to mediate the violence between Israel and Palestine. Then the organization led by the awful Yitzhak Shamir, the Lehi Group, assassinated Bernadotte for not being pro-Israel enough. That Shamir would have such a successful career after this shows the rot at the heart of right-wing Israelis from the beginning of that nation, though it was much more complicated earlier in its existence. Anyway, Bunche took over after Bernadotte’s murder. An effective diplomat himself, he shepherded the 1949 Armistice Agreements to end the war between Israel and its neighbors. It wasn’t a perfect deal, but it ended the war. For this, Bunche received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.

Bunche had his own Cold War politics, largely in defense of UN interventionism. When Patrice Lumumba resisted UN interference in the Congo, it greatly alienated Bunche. The UN operation in the Congo after the end of Belgian colonialism was a huge job and it was also Bunche’s baby. Bunche seems to have believed that Lumumba would not have been assassinated by his own men (and with the help of Allen Dulles and the CIA), had he embraced the UN. Maybe he’s right. In any case, the Congo was a mess and UN peacekeeping operations were pretty new and, as we now know from so many other similar operations over the years, limited in what they can really accomplish. Bunche flew all over the place in the Congo to try and keep the nation together, once coming under fire in the separatist province of Katanga, where Belgian recalcitrants were trying to control the new nation’s richest resources.

Bunche moved to Queens in 1953 and was involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. He was a speaker at the March on Washington in 1963 and in the Alabama struggle in 1965. In fact, he gave the speech immediately preceding King’s at the March. And of course he still faced discrimination at home. In 1965, he and his son tried to join a tennis club in Queens. They were denied based on their race. This led to a lot of publicity and the club then invited them, but they rejected it because it was obviously only because it was Ralph Bunche. A man can win the Nobel Prize, but God forbid he send his kids to the same schools as whites or play tennis on the next court to them. He was also involved in getting the Rockefeller Foundation and other rich donors to fund projects for inner-city communities in the aftermath of the urban riots in the mid and late 1960s, which didn’t change the world, but it was something Bunche could do.

Bunche’s later years were marked by bad health, especially diabetes. He died in 1971, at the age of 68. Up until almost the point of his death, he was trying to broker an agreement to end of the war with Vietnam, under the leadership of UN head U Thant.

Ralph Bunche is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other leading African-Americans in our history, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Ralph Abernathy is in Atlanta and Marian Anderson is in Collingdale, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.


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