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Their paths converge; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Dr. Ralph J. Bunche: Nobel Peace Prize winners.

The Nobel Peace Prize is an international award given yearly since 1901 for achievements in peace. The prize, which includes about $1.3 million, a gold medal, and a diploma, is presented on December 10, the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, its founder. Dr. Ralph J. Bunche was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950. Fourteen years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was the second, the youngest person thus far to receive the Peace Prize. As Peace Laureates, they are on a list of organizations and people that includes Theodore Roosevelt, 1906; Woodrow Wilson, 1910; Mother Teresa, 1979; Desmond Tutu, 1987; Nelson Mandela, 1993; and Jimmie Carter, 2002. Certainly the lives of Drs. King And Bunche demonstrated that no African American of the 20th century, however prominent, escaped the racial forces shaping the United States, forces that led to the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. But why is Dr. King revered and Dr. Bunche all but forgotten?


Dr. Bunche received the Peace Prize for negotiating the peace agreement that ended the Arab-Israeli war of 1948; Dr. King won the Peace Prize for negotiating an "end" to the conflict between African Americans and Whites in Birmingham, Ala. during the spring of 1963. One was an international figure; the other national. Though their ways and means of achieving peace were as diverse as they were, the racial dynamics of the United States pushed the two Laureates toward convergence in Birmingham, Ala. in the spring of 1963, in the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, and in the Selma to Montgomery March of March 25, 1965. Dr. Bunche actually introduced Dr. King at the March on Washington. Dr. King then gave his famous speech, "I Have a Dream!" Of all the Peace Laureates since 1901, that convergence makes the two African-American Laureates historically unique.

Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit on August 7, 1903 (the year is often given as 1904, but Ralph Bunch was never certain of his birth date because he had no birth certificate (1)). His father, Fred Bunch (Ralph's grandmother added the "e" (2)), was a barber in Detroit; his mother, an amateur piano accompanist, was Olive Johnson. The Johnsons traced their family to the early 1800s. Eleanor Madden Johnson, Ralph's great grandmother, was the daughter of a house slave and her white owner. Lucy A. Taylor Johnson, his grandmother born in 1855, was also the daughter of a house slave and her white owner. For three generations, Ralph's female, maternal descendents were slaves, descendents of their white owners. His great-grandfather, James H. Johnson, a Baptist preacher, was a freedman from Virginia. (3) Lucy Johnson and her grandchildren always attended Black Baptist churches.

In 1915, Ralph's grandmother moved her daughter, Olive, and her grandchildren, Ralph and Grace, to Albuquerque, N.M., hoping that the climate would cure her daughter's tuberculosis. Although Fred Bunch joined his family in Albuquerque, he deserted them after his wife, Olive, died in 1916. Ralph's maternal grandmother, whom he called Nana, moved him and his sister Grace to Los Angeles. His grandmother, who could have passed for White as her twin brother Frank did, (4) chose to be Black, probably because of her grandchildren. She formed Ralph's teen-age years. From her, Ralph learned racial pride and the horrors of slavery. To help his grandmother support him and his sisters, he took any jobs he could get: selling newspapers, laying carpet, and even being a houseboy for the rich and famous. In Los Angeles, he was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. He was a comprehensive student who won honors as a debater, writer, and athlete who competed in football, basketball, baseball, and track. On an athletic scholarship at UCLA, he played guard on a basketball team that won three Southern Conference championships. He graduated from UCLA summa cum laude, the valedictorian of the class of 1927, with a major in international relations. His ability to drive himself was the result of his maternal grandmother's insistence that he never let Whites out-do him. He never did. At UCLA, and later at Harvard, white people were his only competition, and he could always drive himself to do better than they did in anything he undertook. For his entire collegiate years at UCLA, and later at Harvard, he always graduated at the top of his class, in spite of the fact that he never knew a single Black professor.


Ralph Bunche completed his master's degree in political science at Harvard in July 1928 with such distinction that he was given a Thayer Fellowship for doctoral study at Harvard. He chose to accept an offer from Howard University to establish the first department of political science at a Black university. He was chairman of the department of political science at Howard from 1928 through 1950. While on leave from Howard, he completed his dissertation at Harvard in 1934 with such distinction that he was awarded the Toppan Prize for research in social studies. He taught at Harvard for two years, 1950 to 1952. During his years at Howard University and at Harvard, Dr. Ralph Bunche was an adviser to the Department of State and to the U.S. military on Africa and colonial areas of importance during World War II. President Truman offered him the position of Assistant Secretary of State, an offer Bunche refused because he would not live in the segregated housing in racially segregated Washington, D.C. While teaching at Howard, Bunche lived on campus, something he could no longer do had he become Assistant Secretary of State. From his position as analyst in the Office of Strategic Services, he became acting chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs in the State Department. In 1946, he was borrowed from the State Department and placed in charge of the Department of Trusteeship of the U.N. From June 1947 to August of 1949, he worked on the confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. After eleven months of ceaseless negotiating, Bunche obtained signatures on an armistice agreement between Israel and the Arab States. For this agreement, he was awarded his Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. In spite of the fact that for most of his professional career Dr. Ralph Bunche was a professor at Howard University, responsible for building a prestigious department of political science, he is known almost exclusively for his work with the UN.

For Dr. Bunche, racial problems in America were much tougher than those of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, because, he said, racism had no logical base. "Racial prejudice" Dr. Bunche said, "is an unreasoned phenomenon without scientific basis in biology or anthropology; segregation and democracy are incompatible. Blacks should maintain the struggle for equal rights while accepting the responsibilities that come with freedom; whites must demonstrate that democracy is color-blind." (5) His positions are empirically derived: Ralph himself was often thought of as White; his grandmother chose to live her life as a Black woman. But increasingly, he began to understand that in America White people defined success in terms of distance from Blacks. That position was similar to the position that W.E. Dubois had come to. It was the position of Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man (1952): Blacks were invisible because Whites refused to "see" them. That position led to his collaboration with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whom he fully admired and supported. If Blacks were ever going to become equal citizens, they had to confront racism through non-violent protests.

Dr. King, on the other hand, was a quintessential Black man, one grounded in the Old Testament and the analogous relationship between the Israelites of the Old Testament established by the Negro Spirituals. Born Michael Luther King Jr. on January 15, 1929, he later changed his name to Martin Luther King Jr. King's racial pride and solidarity came from his father and his grandfather. His grandfather began the family's long tenure of pastors of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. King grew up in Black neighborhoods in Georgia, graduating from a segregated public high school. He received his bachelor's degree from Morehouse College from which both his father and grandfather graduated. He studied theology at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. At Crozer, King was president of his senior class. After three years at Crozer, he received his B.D. With a fellowship won at Crozer, he attended Boston University. He completed his doctorate in 1955. In Boston, he met and later married Coretta Scott.

In 1954, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church of Montgomery, Ala. A member of the executive committee of the NAACP, King became president of the Montgomery Improvement Association. Dr. King was appointed president because his salary was independent of Whites who were known to fire any Black person known to encourage integration in Montgomery, Ala. and in the South. From that position, he orchestrated the Montgomery bus boycott, a boycott that lasted 382 days. Because of his campaigns for civil rights, he was often jailed. In 1957, King was elected president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. During his tenure, he developed his position of non-violence, patterned after the techniques of Gandhi. Between 1957 and 1969, King traveled six million miles and spoke over twenty-five hundred times, "Wherever injustice reared its head," he said. In 1963, he was Time magazine's Man of the Year. For his leadership in the campaign in Birmingham, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That Prize, Dr. King said after receiving it, validated his methodology of nonviolence and made the struggle for racial equality in America international. He donated all of his prize money to organizations fighting for justice, in spite of the fact that he was not earning enough money to adequately support his family.

Drs. Ralph Bunche and Martin Luther King led the Selma to Montgomery March. Both were planners of the March on Washington. Dr. Bunch exerted his influence in organization and in formulating policy. Dr. King was the practical organizer on the streets. African Americans did not know Dr. Bunche well; they knew Dr. King. Dr. King had the unusual ability to make African Americans feel good about themselves. His sermon, "As for Me, I Will Serve the Lord" available on the Internet demonstrates that ability. In that sermon he says, "You don't have to know Mozart to serve the Lord; you don't have to be able to make subjects and verbs agree to serve the Lord," and so forth. He used their language, he attended their churches, he slept in their homes, he ate their food, he went to jail with them, and he analogized to situations from the Old Testament. People trusted him. He changed their lives. He was not the legal strategist that Dr. Bunche was, and he seems to have known that he wasn't. To King laws of segregation violated moral law. Because they were against the law of God, no Christian could obey them.


Thus the Nobel Laureates were very effective working together to solve America's racial problems. But why is Dr. Bunche so forgotten? The things that Dr. Bunche set in place were intangible, abstract. "Race" to him was always an ambiguous concept. For Dr. King, "race" was certain; Black culture was certain and known. He fought for equality, meaning the ability to attend any church or school, eat at any restaurant, sleep at any hotel, read at any library, join any organization, or vote in any election. His oratory was grounded in Black culture, his accomplishments concrete and demonstrable.

Dr. Ralph Bunche died in 1971; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the evening of April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Loraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. (6)

(1) Henry, Charles P. Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? (New York: New York Univ. Press, 1999), 9.

(2) Ibid. See note 7, 252.

(3) Ibid., 9.

(4) Ibid., 17.

(5) Ibid., 26.

(6) Many of the facts are taken from Internet sites on Dr. Ralph J. Bunche and on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
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Publication:The Black Collegian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2005
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