Ralph Bunche: An American Life
by Brian Urquhart
Norton, 496 pp., $27.00
In one of the early adventures of his remarkable but little-remembered life, Ralph Bunche collaborated with the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. He quickly discovered that Myrdal could be a perilous colleague. Bunche was already an accomplished social scientist. At Harvard he had written his prize-winning doctoral thesis on French colonialism in West Africa and was a professor at Howard University, the “black Athens” where he organized the political science department. Myrdal’s study, commissioned by the Carnegie Corporation, was the most comprehensive examination of American race relations ever attempted, and Bunche believed its findings would assist the struggle of African Americans for equality and justice.
In 1939 he and Myrdal went together on a research trip through the South. During the trip when white strangers were around, Myrdal was apt to begin loudly discussing race problems, while Bunche, who had relatively light skin, was for the sake of convenience briefly “passing” for white. Once an Atlanta magazine editor brought a defamation charge after Myrdal indignantly inquired, in response to a crude remark by the white woman concerning the sexual appetites of black men, whether she herself didn’t in fact have a concealed desire to sleep with them. Bunche and Myrdal had to flee across the Georgia border to avoid going to court.
Bunche was good-natured about Myrdal’s foolish remarks. “I was always on the verge of being lynched because of his playful pranks,” he wrote to a friend at the time. After working hours, however, he drew the line. In segregated New Orleans, where Bunche had to spend the night in separate quarters, Myrdal asked him to come around to his hotel for drinks. Because Myrdal’s guest was a Negro, the hotel manager advised him, Bunche would have to use the service entrance and elevator. Bunche told Myrdal that he would not subject himself to Jim Crow for social purposes.
After finishing his work for Myrdal, he was hired as the Africa specialist in the Office of Strategic Services. Subsequently he joined the State Department and was a member of the American delegation in San Francisco which helped draft the United Nations Charter. In 1948, President Truman asked Bunche, then forty-five years old, to be an assistant secretary of state. However, he refused to live again in Washington, citing, among other racial grievances, an incident from his OSS years. When the family dog died and his children wanted to bury it in a local pet cemetery, he found separate sections for the animals of whites and blacks. In 1946, Bunche left the State Department for a temporary assignment as acting head of the trusteeship department in the United Nations Secretariat. He never returned to work in Washington.
Bunche had spent much of his life preparing to deal with the problems of decolonialization facing the UN in the postwar years, and he never seemed to regret having passed up a career in the American foreign service. While he …