Ralph Bunche in 1951
Wikimedia Commons   

In April 1949, President Harry S. Truman offered Ralph Bunche a coveted position as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern, South Asian and African affairs. The position would make Bunche, then the United Nations’ chief mediator between Israel and the Arab states, the highest-ranking African American in the federal government and would position him to become the first black secretary of state.

As a senior diplomat, he would have a major say in determining U.S. priorities and strategies, just as the Cold War with the Soviet Union was entering one of its hotter periods. That year, the division of Europe between a pro-Soviet east and pro-U.S. west was consolidated by the division of Germany. Mao Zedong and the Communist Party had emerged victorious from the Chinese Civil War, boosting similar efforts in Korea and in the French colonies of Indochina. Indonesia, the world’s most populous colony at 80 million, was on the verge of overthrowing 350 years of Dutch rule and following India and Pakistan as an independent nation.

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Truman’s choice of Bunche for the post was evident for several reasons. There was arguably no other American who so completely embodied the American dream of equality of opportunity that the Truman administration wanted to project to the world’s emerging nations. Bunche was born in 1901 in a predominantly white working-class neighborhood of Detroit before moving west, first to New Mexico and then Los Angeles, where he was orphaned and raised by his grandmother, the strong and compassionate matriarch of the Bunche family. He graduated as valedictorian of his high school class in 1922 and of UCLA in 1927, earning a master’s degree in political science from Harvard the following year. He was then awarded his Ph.D. in 1934, the first by an African American in Harvard’s department of government.

It was clear that the next threat from the Soviet Union would focus on the decolonization of Africa, where 80 percent of the continent remained subjects of several European empires. There was probably no American citizen at that time who had a greater understanding of the pressing issue of African decolonization from so many different perspectives than Ralph Bunche.

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Bunche first traveled to West Africa in 1932 to do research for his doctoral dissertation at Harvard. He returned to Africa in 1937 on a fellowship to study the crises of modern imperialism as experienced by the native groups in the colonies, with a stop at the London School of Economics. There he met many of the leaders of the African anti-colonial movement—notably Jomo Kenyatta, the future president of Kenya, who taught him Swahili, and George Padmore, a leading Pan-Africanist thinker who would become an adviser to Kwame Nkrumah and the independence movement in Ghana.

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Bunche visited Kenya, where his friendship with Kenyatta provided access to local African leaders opposed to British rule, and South Africa, where his academic fellowship and connections to British politicians gave him freedom to travel that few native blacks enjoyed. Sometimes this meant that he had an entire train compartment to himself. The South African government—a decade away from full-scale apartheid—acquiesced to his special treatment but insisted that he refrain from “preaching” or making public speeches. Typically, he ignored this advice and attended a meeting of the African National Congress, at which he criticized its more conservative­­­ members.

Bunche was also responsible for establishing and heading an Africa section within the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, the forerunner of the CIA, which was founded in 1941 just before the U.S. entry into World War II. Faced with a dearth of materials in the Library of Congress, Bunche noted that Nazi Germany had far better intelligence on Africa and began producing a wide range of documents to build up American intelligence about the continent.

In April 1946 Bunche began working for the U.N. Secretariat, the international-organization governing body, where he gained a reputation as a particularly skilled diplomat and negotiator on a range of issues in addition to decolonization, most notably in the Middle East. In 1948 he served as principal secretary of the U.N. Special Commission on Palestine, seeking a truce in the war between the new state of Israel and its several Arab neighbors.

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Following the assassination of Count Bernadotte of Sweden, the U.N.’s chief negotiator, by Israeli extremists that September, Bunche continued to seek an armistice between the warring sides, and over months of tense negotiations he established separate armistice agreements between Israel and its four main Arab neighbors. This truce largely kept the peace in the Middle East until the Six-Day Arab-Israeli War in 1967, and it also served as a model for U.N. diplomacy and peacekeeping in the decades that followed.

Lauded for diplomacy that was discreet in public but candid in private, Bunche returned to the U.S. to be welcomed by a ticker tape parade on Broadway in New York City, academic-post offers and Truman’s request that he return to Washington to help guide U.S. foreign policy.

Bunche was clearly the unequaled choice for the State Department post, but he turned Truman down, initially stating that he wanted to continue his work at the U.N. But it was soon revealed that his decision was driven by an intense opposition to living and working in Washington, D.C., and its Virginia suburbs, where he would have had to face the daily indignities of Jim Crow.

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He had endured racial slights during his years at Howard and in the State Department. But as he told his friend and former colleague at State, Dean Rusk—sent by Truman to lobby him—one particular incident explained why he could not return to segregation and second-class citizenship in Washington. The case involved the family dog, which had died. The Bunche children wanted to have the pet buried in a pet cemetery, but when their father went to make the arrangements, he discovered that the cemetery was segregated, with one section for the pets of white owners and a separate space for the pets of African Americans. In a Fourth of July radio broadcast, Bunche declared in public what he had told Rusk and Truman in private: that “living in the nation’s capital is like serving out a [prison] sentence for any Negro who detests segregation and discrimination.”

In the context of the Cold War battle for supremacy, Bunche knew that his remarks echoed Soviet critiques of U.S. hypocrisy on human rights. But he believed that America had to uphold the same values of democracy and equality of opportunity at home that it claimed to be supporting in Africa and Asia. One year later, Bunche would become the first person of African descent to win a Nobel Prize, awarded for his leadership of the Middle East peace process.

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Over the final two decades of his life, he continued to serve the U.N. as a roving diplomat, returning to the Middle East during the 1956 Suez crisis, where he established a U.N. Emergency Force responsible for peacekeeping activities in the region. His commitment to human rights in all countries was unyielding, and he was perhaps one of the earliest examples of an American politician who was committed to—and embodied—the ideals of global citizenship.

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Bunche also continued his lifelong support of equal rights in the U.S., taking part in the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama, which would finally secure passage of the Voting Rights Act. In the early 1950s he had been targeted as a communist sympathizer during the McCarthy witch hunts, but by the 1960s, most attacks on him came from the left and from black nationalists who viewed him as a false symbol of racial progress while millions of black Americans suffered from racism and poverty.

“You can’t eat Bunche for lunch,” Stokely Carmichael taunted. Malcolm X condemned Bunche as an “international Uncle Tom,” who was more concerned about the oppressed overseas than at home. But following Malcolm X’s visit to Mecca and embrace of a more inclusive vision of Islam, he recanted and apologized to the diplomat. Bunche, for his part, was withering in his opposition to racial and ethnic separatism, whether in the Middle East or the Congo or at home. Near the end of his life, he wrote this:

I am a Negro, 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 create it, to build it, to make it strong and great, and rich. All of this belongs to me as much as belongs to any American with a white skin. What is mine I intend to have and to hold, to fight, if necessary, to uphold it. I will not give up my legacy in this society willingly. I will not run away from it by pursuing an escapist fantasy of an all-black road to an all-black society—the illusion of a black heaven.

Ralph Bunche died from complications of diabetes in New York City in December 1971.  

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Also in the Hidden History series: Jan Rodrigues; the First Black Man in Manhattan.

Edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the African American National Biography was first published by Oxford University Press in an award-winning, eight-volume print edition in 2008; a 12-volume second edition followed in 2012. As of 2015, more than 5,500 separate AANB entries are available online as part of OUP’s African American Studies Center.

Steven J. Niven is executive editor of the Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro-Latin American Biography, the Dictionary of African Biography, and the African American National Biography at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. He is also the author of Barack Obama: A Pocket Biography of Our 44th President.