(1949) Ralph J. Bunche, “The Barriers of Race Can be Surmounted”

Ralph J. Bunche, UN Undersecretary General, signing papers, 1963
Courtesy National Museum of American Diplomacy

In his years as a Howard University professor in the 1930s, Ralph J. Bunche subscribed to Marxist ideas.  However by 1949 Bunche was Acting United Nations Mediator for Palestine and had become much more conservative.  His then contemporary views were reflected in a commencement address given at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee on May 30, 1949.  That speech is reprinted below.

In the brief remarks I will make you will understand that today I think exclusively of these young Negro men and women who are graduating, and of the great number like them who will be graduating from other institutions of higher learning in the coming two or three weeks. I have been puzzled no little about what to say to them on this great day in their lives, this milestone along their road of progress in life.

This is, or certainly should be, a joyous occasion. An occasion so joyous, indeed, that all the participants must wear black robes and somber hats to leaven the joy, to keep it from effervescing excessively and to afford at least a semblance of solemnity, academic dignity, and sobriety. Despite the black crepe and the mournful facade this is pure ritual, a cultural lag one is tempted to be light hearted, and gay and poetic, to play with words and music, and preserve the fanciful mood. But in this age time is short even for the young. The sands run fast. And in any case, my poetry would be doggerel and my music discordant. A wise man always sticks to his last.

Unless young graduates have changed radically since the day twenty two years ago when I first donned the academic gown, they have a number of things on their minds as they sit here. First, they are thinking of how they are going to celebrate when this final ritual is over or rather, continue the celebration, for unless I miss my guess, they began to celebrate as soon as it was certified that they would be sitting here today. And since there are undoubtedly timid souls amongst us, it would probably be tactful not to elaborate on the varied and even ingenious forms which such celebration may take. But I daresay there are also some very sober thoughts lurking in the recesses of the minds of these graduates.

For who are they these graduates? They are Americans, they are American citizens, and they are Negroes. And unless they have led remarkably sheltered lives, they undoubtedly have a poignant realization of the significance of at least the latter.

I would like to explore with them just what, at this very moment in this great nation, it means to be an American, a citizen, and a Negro.  I cannot imagine that any question could be of more vital import to these young people on the threshold of a new adventure. Nor do I have any illusions that I can give them all the answers they must seek.

We Americans are part of a vast and powerful and dynamic nation, a great power whose responsibilities and influence in the modern world are frightening in their scope. The origin, traditions and creed of this nation are an inspiration to all freedom loving peoples. Our country’s history is brave. Americans fought and died for their freedom and liberty. Having won by their blood the right to maintain an independent existence, our founding fathers established the nation on the cardinal principles of individual liberty and the equality of man. They spoke of inalienable rights, of the incontestable fact that all men are born free and equal, of the dignity of man. These were the essential virtues. In my view they still are. The founding fathers charted the way for the development of a great and virile democracy. They immortalized these concepts in our Constitution.

The American citizen is at once the benefactor and protector of this great American legacy. The privileges and rights of the American citizen, of all American citizens are writ large in our Constitution, in our traditions, in what has been called the American creed.  I need not detail them.  But they guarantee to every citizen of this great nation all of the essential attributes of a free and dignified existence. In return, they require of the citizen that he meet his obligations to the State and to his fellow man in order that the American way of life may be preserved and perpetuated.

I am an American and I like the American way of life. I like freedom, and equality, and respect for the dignity of the individual. I believe that these graduates like them too. They like them so well that they bitterly resent being denied them because of an accident of birth.

There is a certain irony in the situation with which we are faced here. These Negro graduates of Fisk University today are better Americans than they are Negroes. They are Negroes primarily in a negative sense—they reject that sort of treatment that deprives them of their birthright as Americans. Remove that treatment and their identification as Negroes in the American society would become meaningless at least as meaningless as it is to be of English, or French, or German or Italian ancestry.

These graduates are one hundred per cent Americans. Who, indeed, is a better American, a better protector of the American heritage, of the American way, than he who demands the fullest measure of respect for those cardinal principles which are the pillars of our society?

If we could probe deeply into the minds of these graduates we would discover, I am sure, that the basic longing, the aspiration of every one of them, is to be an American in full. Not a semi American. Not a Negro American. Not an Afro-American.  Not a “Colored Gentleman.” Not “one of our Colored Brethren.” Just an American with no qualifications, no ifs or buts, no apologies, condescension, or patronization. Just Americans, with a fair and equal opportunity as individuals to make or break their futures on the basis of their individual abilities without the un-American handicap of race.   Can it be doubted that these young men and women must even now be calculating their chances to make their way into the main stream of American life?  And can it be doubted that they must be greatly tormented at the prospect that because of their race they may be kept out of the mainstream and shunted into the bayous and creeks and backwashes of American life?

And what may be told to them? That as Americans and citizens of this great democracy they are as entitled as the next man to negotiate the waters of the mainstream could be disputed only by racial bigots. But to encourage them to believe that their course is charted and the shoals of racialism no longer endanger them would be criminally misleading.

This, it seems to me, is what they should know.  The democratic framework of our society is their great hope. The American Negro suffers cruel disabilities because of race which are in most flagrant violation of the constitutional tenets and ideals of the American democracy. But the saving grace for the Negro is the democratic warp and woof of the society which permits the Negro to carry on his incessant and heroic struggle to come into his own, to win those rights, that dignity and respect for the Negro, individually and collectively, which are his birthright as an American. And, fortunately, the American, white and black alike, has a conscience. The Negro American daily wins increasing support for his struggle from all those other Americans who aspire toward a democratic, not a semi-democratic America; who wish a four fourths, not a three fourths democracy. Moreover, the sympathy of the world is with him. The Charter of the United Nations endorses his aspirations.

This also, these graduates should know well and underscore. It is true that on occasion, an individual Negro may, by tremendous effort, successfully negotiate the racial rapids and find himself in the mainstream. But that this is a rarity and his group is far behind, is abundantly testified to by the fact that this very presence in the mainstream is front page news. The status of the individual, in the long view, can be no more secure than the status of his group.

We Negroes must be great realists: The road over which we must travel is clear, though the prospect may not be pleasant. We suffer crippling disadvantages because of our origin. But we are Americans, in a basically democratic American society. That society is a competitive society. The going is hard even for white Americans. It is harder for us. To make his way, the Negro must have firm resolve, persistence, tenacity. He must gear himself to hard work all the way. He can never let up. He can never have too much preparation and training. He must be a strong competitor. He must adhere staunchly to the basic principle that anything less than full equality is not enough. If he ever compromises on that principle, his soul is dead. He must realize that he and his group have not attained the goal until it is no longer necessary to make reference to the fact that “X” was the “first Negro” to do this or that, and until accomplishment by a Negro is taken by the public at large as a matter of fact.

This may have a harsh ring, but it is the gospel truth. The road of Negro progress is no road for weaklings. Those who cannot summon up the courage, the resolve and the stamina to travel along it can find refuge in a handy alibi: the disadvantages of race. And they can find ample documentation to support their plea. But a community of people cannot adopt an alibi, however credible, as its philosophy of life.

My own philosophy on such matters is quite simple: whatever is worthwhile is worth working, striving, sacrificing, and struggling for.

There is no substitute for hard work as the key to success in the American society. This is true for white Americans. It is even more true for black Americans. Few Americans of any color or creed can ever find easy the climb up the ladder.

But while nothing is easy for the Negro in America, neither is anything impossible. The barriers of race are formidable, but they can be surmounted. Indeed, the entire history of the Negro in this country has been a history of continuous, relentless progress over these barriers. Like “Old Man River,” the Negro keeps “movin’ along,” and if I know my people, the Negro will keep on moving resolutely along until his goal of complete and unequivocal equality is attained.

If I may be pardoned for a personal reference, I should like to say that in my own struggle against the barriers of race, I have from early age been strongly fortified by the philosophy taught me by my maternal grandmother, and it may be of interest to you.

She was a tiny woman, but a personality of indomitable will and invincible moral and spiritual strength. “Nina” we all called her, and she was the ruler of our family “clan.” She had come from Texas, married in Indian territory, and on the premature death of my grandfather, was left with five young children.

Nana had traveled the troubled road. But she had never flinched or complained. Her indoctrination of the youngsters of the “clan” began at an early age. The philosophy she handed down to us was as simple as it has proved invaluable. Your color, she counseled, has nothing to do with your worth. You are potentially as good as anyone. How good you may prove to be will have no relation to your color, but with what is in your heart and your head. That is something which each individual, by his own effort, can control. The right to be treated as an equal by all other men, she said, is man’s birthright. Never permit any one to treat you otherwise. For nothing is as important as maintaining your dignity and self respect. She told us that there would be many and great obstacles in our paths and that this was the way of life. But only weaklings give up in the face of obstacles. Set a goal for yourself and determine to reach it despite all obstacles. Be honest and frank with yourself and the world at all times. Never compromise what you know to be the right. Never pick a fight, but never run from one if your principles are at stake. Never be content with any effort you make until you are certain you have given it the best you have in you. Go out into the world with your head high and keep it high at all times.

Nana’s advice and philosophy is as good today for these graduates as it was when she gave it to me in my childhood. I certainly cannot improve upon it, nor would I try to do so. For me it has been a priceless heritage from a truly noble woman.

In conclusion, I may say only that I have great faith that the kind of world we all long for can and will be achieved. It is the kind of world the United Nations is working incessantly to bring about: a world at peace; a world in which people practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors; a world in which there is full respect for human rights and fundamental freedom for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion; a world in which all men shall walk together as equals and with dignity.

I trust that among these graduates there are many who will consecrate their lives to the struggle to achieve that kind of world.