America Means to Me", article written by Ralph Bunche for
'The American Magazine', 1950
meets the press
Ralph J. Bunche in his UN office, 1956
It was not long before the media appropriated Bunche's message
and used it for its own purposes.
"Those who learned the basic lessons
of human relations from the symbolic representation of Bunche
put forward by the media, heard very little of Bunche's chosen
message. Instead they received a rags-to-riches success story
of a man whose world-class achievements allegedly proved the
universality of the Alger myth. What is important is that the
Alger myth became something that Bunche neither intended nor
anticipated. [the mass media] handling of the Ralph Bunche story"
overwhelmed and nearly completely overshadowed the other ways
in which Bunche sought to use the platform built from the public's
- From The Work of Democracy:
Ralph Bunche, Lorraine Hansberry and Kenneth Clark, by Ben Keppel
There were other forces at work. Bunche's
visibility worldwide was of considerable value to America in
the Cold War propaganda sparring between East and West. Having
successfully "crossed over" from Black America into the American
mainstream, Bunche's personal achievements were pointed to as
proof that racism in America was dead. At the same time, his
success was a pretext to place the blame for the "Negro Problem"
on Black people themselves. By the early sixties, some African
American leaders felt that Bunche's image was being used in
ways that were not in the best interest of the race. Even Martin
Luther King Jr. called the Bunche phenomenon the "pinnacle of
Today, when we speak of Ralph Bunche, which Bunche are we remembering?
As scholar Charles Henry puts it, "for nearly a decade, he was
the most celebrated African American of his time both here and
abroad. Today he is more than marginalized - he is virtually
forgotten. Bunche's rise and fall as a public symbol tells us
as much, if not more, about ourselves as about Bunche." *
"The larger society chose to see
[Bunche] as non-Black - if not White, then somehow above race.
[...] When the larger society no longer needed his legacy for
its purposes, he was forgotten. For the Black community, Bunche
became invisible -- his identity lost. That is why Ralph Johnson
Bunche is unknown today and that is why his story must be told."
Charles Henry in Ralph J. Bunche: Selected Speeches and Writings
Charles Henry in Ralph Bunche:
Model Negro or American Other?