Grades 9-12
Ralph Bunche was highly committed to helping colonized countries regain their autonomy through peaceful means. He was instrumental in drafting Chapters 11 and 12 of the United Nations Charter, dealing with non-self-governing territories and the International Trusteeship System. He worked diligently to help African countries gain their independence from European colonizers and to assist in their transition to self-governing nations.

This lesson has students learn about European and American colonization and investigate Bunche’s involvement in the decolonization process. They’ll conclude by researching a current United Nations decolonization initiative and explaining what Bunche might have recommended be done about the matter.

Relevant National Standards

Teaching Strategy

Assessment Recommendations


Students will:

  • Define and discuss colonialism and self-determination.
  • Read and discuss 19th century Europeans’ statements regarding colonialism.
  • Analyze a map of imperialism in 1914.
  • View segments from Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey.
  • Read and answer questions about Bunche’s views and activities on colonialism.
  • Read and take notes on United Nations documents, including chapters from the UN Charter, on decolonization and self-determination.
  • Research a current UN effort to promote decolonization and self-determination, and write letters pretending they’re Bunche and expressing what his view on the matter would have been.


  • Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey videotape

  • VCR and TV

  • Computer with Internet connection (ideal, but not mandatory)

Estimated Time
4 class periods

Relevant National Standards:

World History Standards (from McREL:

  • Standard 36: Understands patterns of global change in the era of Western military and economic dominance from 1800 to 1914

  • Standard 43: Understands how post-World War II reconstruction occurred, new international power relations took shape, and colonial empires broke up

  • Standard 44: Understands the search for community, stability, and peace in an interdependent world

Civics Standards (from McREL:

  • Standard 22: Understands how the world is organized politically into nation-states, how nation-states interact with one another, and issues surrounding U.S. foreign policy

Teaching Strategy:

  1. Ask students if they know what the word "colonialism" means. If not, have a student look up the word in a dictionary. What colonies have students heard about or studied? What is their impression of colonialism?

  2. Have a student look up the word "self-determination," and ask students to explain how this concept relates to colonialism. Are students aware of any particular struggles for self-determination?

  3. Have students visit the following Web sites to read statements that Europeans made about the practice of colonialism. Ask them to explain in a paragraph or a class discussion the ways in which these Europeans justified this practice. Students should notice both the economic and the racial justifications.
  1. Have students look at the Imperialism and the Balance of Power map, and answer the following questions about what the map shows. Discuss students’ responses as a class.
    • Which continents were the most heavily colonized in 1914?
    • Which European countries had the greatest number of colonies?
    • What were the racial and ethnic differences between the colonial powers and the colonized regions?
    • What might these racial and ethnic differences have implied about Europeans’ attitudes toward the colonized people?
  1. Provide students with a brief introduction to Ralph Bunche. Explain that Bunche was a scholar and diplomat who devoted his life to promoting decolonization and human rights. He worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the State Department and then the United Nations and was the first person of color, anywhere in the world, to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950. Bunche earned this honor for his work toward peace in the Middle East. Bunche was also instrumental in helping African nations in their transition from colonies to independent states.

  2. Show students the following segments from the video. As they view each segment, they should take notes to answer the question "What did Bunche think and do about colonialism, decolonization, and self-determination?"


Harvard dissertation and African colonialism


Ethiopia and A World View of Race


beginnings of World War II and Bunche's new roles in the government


San Francisco conference and the UN Charter


India, Palestine


Egyptian/Israeli conflict, African decolonization


  1. Have students continue to learn about Bunche’s attitudes toward colonialism at the PBS Ralph Bunche Web site, and ask them to read about Bunche’s views on colonialism. They may also wish to read excerpts from A World View of Race, which may be available in the public library (and can be obtained through William Greaves Productions at As they read the materials, have them answer the following questions:
    • What did Bunche think of colonialism?
    • According to Bunche, what is the relationship between colonialism and race?
    • In what ways did Bunche feel colonialism was related to the status of civil rights in the United States?
  1. Inform the class that Bunche was involved in drafting the United Nations Charter. Tell them that he was particularly instrumental in drafting chapters 11 and 12, which deal with issues related to decolonization and self-determination. Have them read these two chapters at the United Nations Web site. They should also look at the December 8, 2000 United Nations press release concerning the 40th anniversary of the declaration of decolonization (to find this document, they should search the press releases for "decolonization" and find the December 8, 2000 press releases). Ask students to take notes on and then discuss as a class the United Nation’s view of colonialism and its role in eliminating colonialism.

  2. Have students perform a "case study" of a present-day situation in which the United Nation is assisting a country on its path to self-determination. They should find a country or territory at the UN Decolonization Unit page. They should then browse the UN Web site and one or two news sites, such as CNN or BBC News, and search for other Web resources to find out about the history of this situation and current decolonization activities. Ask them to write letters that Bunche may have written if he were alive today, providing a background of the situation, describing the UN’s role, and explaining his opinion of what should be done and why. Their letters should address the following points:
    • A brief historical background of the situation.
    • An overview of the United Nation’s activities and goals in this location today.
    • Bunche’s opinions of how this situation should be handled and what the United Nations, the United States, and other world powers should do.
    • An explanation of why Bunche feels this way: what fundamental beliefs does Bunche hold that make him believe that these actions should be taken?
  1. Hold a closing class discussion in which students compare the struggles for self-determination that they’ve learned about in this lesson with other types of colonialism and struggles for independence that have occurred or are occurring in the world. For example, ask students to explain the similarities and differences between the American colonies’ fight for independence and the African struggles in which Bunche was involved. Also point out that the process of colonization is still going on today in Brazil, where the last of the Amazon rainforest region and its people are being taken over, wiped out, or assimilated by more technologically-advanced outsiders. How does this situation compare with the ones students have studied in this lesson? (To continue teaching about issues in Brazil, use the two lesson plans at Journey to Amazonia that deal with self-determination of rainforest peoples: "Chico Mendes of Brazil" and "World Trade Protests: Why All the Fuss?").


Assessment Recommendations:

Since every class is different, every teacher will assess students in slightly different ways. However, areas of consideration should include the following:

  • Participating in class discussions.
  • Carefully following all directions.
  • Taking clear and accurate notes on the information they read and view in the video.
  • Accurately answering all questions when asked to provide written answers.
  • Writing letters that reflect a careful consideration of Bunche’s views on decolonization, provide realistic examples of things Bunche might say about the situation, and address all four of the required points.



  • Stage a class debate over the role the United States should play in assisting the self-determination of other countries and territories. Questions to be debated may include: Should the United States send troops to territories that are fighting for self-determination? How fully should the United States support and participate in United Nations activities regarding self-determination? Does United States participation in self-determination activities for other countries or territories detract from its ability to tend to internal matters, such as civil rights and social justice, or does U.S. participation facilitate civil rights within the U.S.?
  • Hold a mock United Nations meeting in which each student or pair of students represents a different country. Assign a variety of countries, including the United States, a few western European countries, a former Soviet nation, and some African, Asian, and Latin American countries. The meeting should concern the question of whether the UN should formally support self-determination or decolonization for a particular country or territory, which can be selected from the UN Decolonization Unit page. Students should research the history, economy, and political system of their assigned countries as well as the decolonization situation you’ve selected. Have them present their views on UN involvement from the perspective of their assigned country’s leaders, addressing the following questions: What is your government’s history; was your country ever colonized or is your country a colonizer? What are your country’s economic interests, if any, in the territory under question? Considering the political system in your country, what views is your government likely to take concerning whether a territory should be granted independence?
  • Ask students to look carefully at a map of present-day Africa, and ask them why they think the countries have the boundaries that they do. Have students research the Scramble for Africa and the division of African territories after World War I to find out why African countries have their current national boundaries. They should use the Scramble for Africa Web site and other resources.
  • Have students find out what major African American leaders, such as Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, said about colonialism. What is the relationship between colonialism and civil rights, according to these leaders? They can find some relevant statements at the following Web sites:

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