By CHARLYNN SPENCER PYNE
The great peacekeeper Ralph Bunche was the subject of two days of events at the Library.
First was the Washington premiere of the documentary film "Ralph J. Bunche: An American Odyssey," on Jan. 31, and the following morning a symposium was held on the legacy of Bunche (1903-1971).
The film was produced by independent filmmaker William Greaves, who presented archival copies of the film to Dr. Billington during the premiere and to DeTannyia M. Towner from the D.C. Humanities Council during the symposium. (The film was later aired on PBS in the Washington area on Feb. 2.) The symposium was moderated by Ambassador Donald McHenry, former United Nations permanent representative, and panelists included Brian Urquhart, former U.N. undersecretary general and author of Ralph J. Bunche, An American Life (1993), on which the film was based; Benjamin Rivlin, former Bunche assistant and editor of Ralph Bunche: The Man and His Times (1990); Robert Edgar, professor of African studies at Howard University and editor of An African-American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche in South Africa, 1937 (1992); and Ronald Walters, a professor in the Department of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland and former chairman of the Political Science Department at Howard University.
In welcoming the audience to the film presentation, Dr. Billington noted that the evening was indeed special "because of the character of the man whom we are here to celebrate." He continued: "Ralph Bunche was the first person of color anywhere in the world to win the Nobel Peace Prize [in 1950]. … A black American, he was a fiercely dedicated international civil servant who never wished for either the limelight or reward for the extraordinary services he rendered to the United Nations—as the guiding spirit of the U.N. trusteeship provisions; as a mediator on the Island of Rhodes during the first Palestine crisis, for which he received the Peace Prize; as the organizer of the immensely complicated U.N. operations in the Congo Katanga crisis; and for ensuring, almost singlehandedly, that peacekeeping operations became part of the [work of the] United Nations. … He was truly a man of great vision who expressed it through action."
In his opening remarks, Ambassador McHenry noted that, while there are those who say that Bunche's greatest contribution was in peacekeeping, he believes it was in the area of decolonization. "The [U.N.] charter was a compromise when it came to decolonization. The British, French and colonial powers had no intention in 1945 of granting independence to those countries under their control. … The compromise was to separate the so-called trusteeship system [which Bunche was very instrumental in writing] from the so-called non-self-governing system. The former would be more progressive, [with] considerable international oversight, and the goals would be self-government or independence. … In the non-self-governing territories section [of the U.N. Charter] those provisions do not exist."
The goal is to promote self-government not independence. Mr. McHenry continued: "Even though there was a compromise of the trusteeship system, the precedents set in the trusteeship system would soon lead to the same kinds of changes and oversight for most of the colonies [under the non-self-governing system]. … And when I think of Bunche, it is this pioneering work in terms of the oversight of the international community for those persons who were not yet governing themselves that I think history will say he had his greatest impact."
Mr. Urquhart, the first panelist, noted: "Bunche was a very unusual public figure. He liked getting things done, but deeply despised and disliked taking credit for them. So the efforts that he pioneered are still well known to us—civil rights, peacekeeping, decolonization—while he has virtually disappeared, which is exactly what he wanted."
Mr. Urquhart continued: "Bunche was an intellectual in action. He started as a distinguished academic—he graduated with honors from UCLA, earned his Ph.D. from Harvard and [established] the Political Science Department at Howard University [in 1928]—and turned his brilliant intellect more and more toward problems he felt needed solving: First, civil rights and race relations in this country. Bunche not only wrote about every aspect of the civil rights question in the U.S., but was also an activist organizing demonstrations here in Washington, D.C.
"Next, decolonization, which he regarded as another branch of the same problem. Bunche became convinced early on that the race problem in the U.S. was really part of a worldwide problem … imperialism and colonialism. And he was the first person to prove this parallel in A World View of Race . And finally to the United Nations, the way it was organized and the way it tried to keep the peace."
Mr. Urquhart called Bunche a "miraculous negotiator." He said, "Bunche established a remarkable partnership with [Count Folke] Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator for Palestine, and when Bernadotte was assassinated, Bunche became the principal negotiator at Rhodes. … No one believed that you could complete a written agreement—an armistice, between the five Arab League states and Israel, and Bunche did it."
Mr. Rivlin fondly recalled the influences that Bunche had on his life when he was "a young Jewish kid from Brooklyn who went to a public college—Brooklyn College—and ended up studying Moroccan Arabic at the University of Pennsylvania," where he first met Bunche when he came to deliver a lecture. Mr. Rivlin went to work for Bunche in the Office of the Coordinator of Information (CIO), housed in the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Bunche had been recruited from Howard University in 1941 to serve as senior social science analyst in the African and Far East sections of the CIO. The CIO was the precursor of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), which later evolved into the Central Intelligence Agency. Bunche was chief of the African Section, Technical and Research Division, OSS, from 1942 to 1944, when he left to join the State Department and begin work on the U.N. Charter.
One of Mr. Rivlin's most vivid memories while working for Bunche was of the day An American Dilemma (1944) was published and an office party was held to celebrate. Bunche had assisted Gunnar Myrdal on the massive and influential study on the status of black Americans, and "was very proud of his involvement with the book," said Mr. Rivlin. "Bunche's legacy will not only be in peacekeeping and decolonization, but also in race relations in the United Sates and elsewhere," he noted.
Mr. Walters would like to see more research on the paradigm of African American leadership that Bunche represents; the relationship between Bunche and Martin Luther King Jr.; and Bunche's "coming back to activism" in the 1960s. Mr. Walters, who was a member of Howard University's Political Science Department for 24 years beginning in 1971 and served three terms as chairman, spoke of how fondly the senior professors remembered Bunche and the pioneering work he did at Howard, and joked about how intimidated he felt with Bunche's portrait "staring him in the face everyday" as he occupied his former office.
Mr. Walters recalled participating in a demonstration against the Vietnam War in New York at the U.N. headquarters on April 16, 1967, "and the juxtaposition of thousands of us on the outside—listening to King and [Harry] Belafonte, and Bunche on the inside—also frustrated, that the U.N. had not been able to end the war. … On the outside, King, on the inside, Bunche. When we think about this paradigm, it has been used lots of times, for example, the Free South Africa Movement and its triumph in securing legislation to sever ties with apartheid-South Africa. It was because of the juxtaposition of external pressure—demonstrations in the street; and key people in political institutions [internal pressure] that the Free South Africa Movement was successful in bringing about the Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986."
Mr. Walters also noted that King and Bunche "shared a deep respect for each other as Nobel Peace Prize winners. Their speeches are similar; and King considered Bunche his elder statesman, inviting him to participate in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march … which drew Bunche back to 'the Movement' and back to political activism." Mr. Walters said, "I would have liked to have seen an analysis by Bunche of his coming back to activism in the latter part of his life."
Mr. Edgar, the final panelist, commented that he was among the group summoned to New York to view the original 19 hours of Mr. Greaves's film. "We got to see Bunche's life in greater detail than many of us wanted to—but there are facets of his life that we are still trying to uncover, including his work as a pioneering Africanist in the 1930s." (He noted that, as a result of the film, his book An African-American in South Africa: the Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche in South Africa (1937) is being reissued in paperback.)
Mr. Edgar asserted that Bunche's primary introduction to international relations was at Harvard. "He wanted to write his doctoral dissertation on the experiences of mixed-raced people in Brazil, but his committee felt jittery about the implications of an African American undertaking such research with segregation the norm in many parts of the U.S. and steered him toward West Africa and a dissertation on 'French Administration in Togoland and Dahomey' [completed in 1934]. Because of the influence of his committee, his writing is very reserved, and he refused to publish the dissertation.
"However, in A World View of Race (1936), a monograph that draws on his dissertation and applies his [1930s] class analysis of the United States on a global scale, he shows his impassioned opposition to colonialism."
Bunche wanted to do additional studies on Africa, according to Mr. Edgar, who explained: "Bunche approached the Social Science Research Council [SSRC] in New York about funding a project that would assess the impact of colonial rule and Western culture on Africans, through the eyes of Africans. However, there was a pervasive belief in the nation at that time that African Americans could not conduct objective research on Africa because they were too emotionally tied."
Mr. Edgar noted that the SSRC proposed an alternative: Bunche would learn the field methods of cultural anthropologists, and he would receive funding for two years to study with leading anthropologist Melville Herskovits of Northwestern University, Bronislaw Malinowski of the London School of Economics and Isaac Schapera of the University of Capetown. His project would also include three months of extensive travel through South Africa.
Mr. Edgar said, "Bunche had to overcome many barriers to obtain permission to travel in South Africa; and he had to assure officials that he would not stir up the natives by engaging in public speaking." He continued, "Bunche describes in his research notes in 1937 a South Africa that did not change much over the next 50 years. … He had to reassess himself as an African American traveling around South Africa. On one hand, he was a researcher, and on the other hand, he was a black man traveling in a segregated society where 'every American Negro … is a missionary whether he wills it or not.' Nonwhite South Africans looked up to African Americans because they had achieved success, albeit in a segregated society." According to Mr. Edgar, despite his earlier assurances to the authorities, Bunche gave pep talks on black American achievements to inspire optimism and hope.
These formulating experiences as an Africanist in the 1930s were crucial to his later U.N. work, notes Mr. Edgar. They allowed him to interact with a wide array of people as an individual and not as a government official; they afforded him invaluable firsthand personal experiences; and provided him with a unique view of colonialism. His work for equality and against colonialism would continue throughout his life.
Ms. Pyne is a network specialist in the Network Development and MARC Standards Office and editor of Library Services News, a staff newsletter.