"What America Means to Me", article written by Ralph Bunche for 'The American Magazine', 1950

Bunche meets the press

Dr. 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 admiration."
- 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 tokenism".

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?

Home | Early Influences | Scholar-Activist | Drive to Decolonize | Mr. UN
The Peacemaker | Man & the Myth | Timeline | Educational Resources
Making the Movie | Site Credits