Young people of all races could find no better role model than the Ralph Bunche who is portrayed in Haskins’ biography. Bunche’s difficult path from childhood poverty to international acclaim and his significant contributions to humanity should serve as an inspiration to everyone. That those successes were achieved despite coming to adulthood during the Great Depression and despite the rampant racism in American society that created numerous obstacles for Bunche only underscores the book’s central theme: Effort and perseverance, regardless of one’s circumstance, lead to success and personal fulfillment.
Haskins highlights those qualities in Bunche most clearly in his account of Bunche’s conduction of the negotiations which he directed between Israeli and Arab diplomats in 1949. During eighty-one days of nonstop talks, Bunche worked his staff and the often-obstinate diplomats to exhaustion, at one point locking himself and the Arab and Israeli delegates in a room for twenty hours, refusing to adjourn until a particularly difficult problem had been resolved. Haskins makes clear to his readers that this sort of dedication inevitably leads to victory. In this case, success resulted in the Nobel Peace Prize for Bunche. Haskins makes it clear, however, that Bunche was much more than a successful mediator for the United Nations.
Haskins shows that, even at an early age, Bunche refused to acquiesce to the racist insistence on his inferiority. One of the most moving accounts in the biography describes Bunche as a boy running alongside the segregated streetcar in which his grandmother was riding because he refused to sit at the back with other African Americans, as required in all public conveyances in Los Angeles. Haskins shows that this proud aspect of Bunche’s personality resulted from the influence of two women: his grandmother, who reared him and taught him that he was as good as anyone else, and his teacher, who treated him with kindness and taught him that all white people are not racists.
Throughout the book, Haskins underscores the fact that Bunche—even though he spoke out often against discrimination and participated quietly in civil rights protests, such as the famous march led by King from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965—was much more effective than most militants in ending legal discrimination in the United States simply through the way in which he lived his life and the way in which he treated others, regardless of race. Haskins shows that Bunche practiced what others preached. He evaluated everyone he met on that person’s merits, not on the individual’s race or religion. While many people would have become embittered by being denied access to restaurants in the capital of a nation that he had served so well, Bunche met each such incident with a quiet dignity that shamed the perpetrators.
Haskins, who is himself African American, takes obvious and justifiable pride in portraying his subject first as an African American who succeeded in a field—political science—overwhelmingly dominated by whites. Throughout the later chapters of the book, the author also reflects on his own conviction, shared by Bunche, that the United Nations offers the greatest hope for world peace and for an end to racial injustice and bigotry, not only in the United States but in the rest of the world as well.
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