In the spring of 1951, the Muhlenberg College administration had a decision to make.
Not only had longtime college president Levering Tyson decided to resign, but they were about to make college history. That year they picked for the first time an African-American to be the college's commencement speaker.
He was Dr. Ralph Bunche, a U.N. diplomat and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. Considering the respect with which he was regarded around the world, it now seems a cross between laughable and sad that this choice was regarded anything but inspired.
But America was still in 1951 a segregated country, legally in the south and de facto in the north. That a man regarded as a world figure of towering importance could not take a drink of water from the same fountain or stay in the same hotel as a white man in his own country, was the reality.
The announcement that Bunche was to speak at Muhlenberg first appeared in the Morning Call on May 3, 1951.
"DR. R. J. Bunche To Speak at Berg ' Commencement," read its headline. "The list of speakers," the article noted, "and those to be honored by the presentation of honorary degrees is headed by Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, 1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner and currently the United Nations mediator in Palestine."
Among the others listed were Kenneth C. Grubb, CMG (companion of St. Michael and St. George), a prominent English clergyman who would be the speaker for the baccalaureate, Sir Angus and Lady Fletcher, the guests of Tyson and his wife, and Rev. Martin O Dietrich, Lutheran World Federation representative for Germany at Geneva. Sir Angus had already received a degree from Muhlenberg in 1942.
Exactly how Muhlenberg was able to get this high-powered international line-up is not mentioned in the article. The Tysons' close relationship with former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt may have played a role in getting Bunche. Calling her "First Lady of the World," she was appointed in 1945 by President Harry Truman to represent the U. S. at the U.N. General Assembly and had taken a leading role with Bunche in support of the declaration of human rights. In a 1942 visit to Allentown, Roosevelt spoke at Muhlenberg and stayed with the Tysons. It is likely she suggested Bunche come to Muhlenberg at their request.
Although he is largely consigned to the history books today, Ralph Bunche was widely known around the world in 1951. Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1904. His father was a barber and his mother a musician. Bunche was of mixed raced ancestry. His family roots went back before the American Revolution. He spent most of his growing up years in New Mexico and Los Angles, raised by his Aunt Lucy Taylor Johnson.
Bunche was a gifted student and, using the money his community raised for him, he got a graduate scholarship to Harvard University. Working part time in a bookstore to make ends meet, he graduated from Harvard with a doctorate in political science, being the first African American to gain a Ph.D. from an American university.
From 1928 to 1940, Bunche was chairman of the political science department at Howard University, an historic black university founded after the Civil War.
In 1944, Bunche took part in the early planning for the creation of the U.N. at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference. His best-known act in terms of diplomacy, for which he was given the Nobel Peace Prize, was with trying to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moshe Dayan, representative for Israel at the talks, recalled that their bargaining sessions took place over a pool table while they were playing pool.
At its successful conclusion, Bunche presented both sides with memorial plates to mark the occasion. Asked by Dayan what he would have done with them if the talks had failed, Bunche quickly replied, "I'd have broken the plates over your damned heads."
When Bunche arrived at Muhlenberg June 3, 1951, the headlines were full of news about the Korean War. The United States, acting under U.N. resolutions, had most of the troops in a conflict that had begun roughly a year before. The Red Chinese Army had entered the fight and by the time the graduates at Muhlenberg were getting ready for their big day, the U.S. was engaged in fierce fighting with these Chinese so-called "volunteers."
Rather than giving the graduates the usual cliches of commencement speakers, Bunche decided to talk about Korea, world peace and the U.N.'s role in it. And it is quite possible that most of his audience of 2,000, 229 of them graduates, expected him to do just that.
Bunche began by noting that Korea was the first time the U.N. process for the peaceful resolution of conflict had failed, and he put the blame squarely on North Korea.
"It stubbornly refused to let the U.N. process work and resorted to aggressive force as the means of attaining its ends." But, Bunche noted, that if the U.N. did not succeed, "there will certainly be no peace in the world and there may well be an end to freedom…and a catastrophic fatal atomic war." The real end of the U.N. was "not waging war or enlarging war seeking military glory."
Bunche went on to pay "high tribute to those brilliantly heroic fighting men of 18 nations in Korea who on behalf of the U.N. are making heart breaking sacrifices for all of us. They are the great heroes of the day. They are entitled to our fullest and most self-sacrificing support." But as a peace mediator Bunche was not in favor of war. "I believe rightly that any war stopped by honorable negotiation and conciliation short of military victory for either adversary would be genuine and heartening victory for peace and humanity."
Universal freedom, he noted, was what was needed to save the world from warfare. Millions around the world were on the verge of revolution in Asia and Africa.
"These revolutions among these people cannot be stopped, nor can they be slowed down…these millions want a better life-education, housing, health protection, security." The two questions for the future, Bunche said were, "will they be everywhere violent, or can they be achieved without bloodshed as the United Nations strives for? And secondly, will they lead into democratic or into totalitarian channels?''
He advised the developed world to guide them with aid but not try to dominate them. "This will be costly to sure," he concluded, "but a tremendous program could be supported for the cost of only a short period of warfare in Korea."
When he finished speaking, the degrees to students were conferred. Muhlenberg archivist Susan Falciani Maldonado notes that three African- Americans, the first to attend the college, were among those who received them. They were William Elmo Jackson, an Allentown native, William N. Pulley and James R Wilson. Wilson had been a navigator, bombardier and pilot with the Tuskegee Airman during World War II.
Bunche continued his career at the U.N., covering crises around the world before retiring from the U.N. in 1971. In 1963, he received the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy. Bunche also became active in the Civil Rights movement, being a participant in the March on Washington with Dr. Martin Luther King and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965.
In 1959, Bunche and his son, Ralph Bunche Jr., were rejected from membership in the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens because of their race. In reaction to the negative publicity that followed, the club apologized and invited him to join. Bunche turned it down, saying that the membership was being given to him because of who he was and not based on a desire to achieve racial equality.
Bunche died from complications of diabetes mellitus on December 8, 1971. He was 68 years old.