Black nobelmen: Obama follows in tradition of Bunche, King

WASHINGTON (NNPA) —If it’s any consolation to President Obama, the controversy swirling around his recent naming as the 2009 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize puts him in good company. The other African-American Prize winners, United Nations diplomat Dr. Ralph Bunche and civil rights icon Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., also had to weather their share of censure.


“Those nominations were not without controversy,” acknowledged political analyst Ronald Walters.

Bunche, known as the U.N.’s “great peacemaker,” won the award in 1950 for his pivotal role in negotiating armistices between Israel and the Arab States. Later, as the U.N. undersecretary general, he played major peacekeeping roles in the Suez and in the Congo.

“I think no other period could be considered more difficult [in the history of Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab relations] and yet a powerful agreement was arrived at by Ralph Bunche,” said Lorenzo Morris, a professor at Howard University’s Political Science Department, which Bunche created.

But he was not without critics. In fact, according to an Oct. 30, 1948, AFRO article, Bunche was warned by Jewish terrorists that he was marked for death.

“Bunche received criticism and had a tendentious relationship with Israel,” Walters said. “He was not an American official but a United Nations official and they were trying to have him act as an American [official would] and come down on the side of Israel.”

Dr. King, too, whom the Nobel Committee awarded the prize in 1964 for being “the first person in the Western world to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence” was also reviled when he received the honor, especially by the southern states.

King’s longtime nemesis, segregationist Eugene “Bull’’ Connor called it “scraping the bottom of the barrel.”

Virgil Stuart, police chief of St. Augustine, Fla., is quoted in a Oct. 14, 1964 Washington Post article as saying, “How can you win the Peace Prize when you stirred up all the trouble he did?”

And then, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who for years waged a witch hunt against King and other civil rights leaders, is quoted as saying, “He was the last person in the world who should ever have received it.”

Still, Walters said, Bunche and King had made “solid accomplishments” and people “understood their stature…. There was enough consensus around what they did.” And that’s the point of departure when it comes to Obama’s win.

Since the Nobel Committee made the announcement, U.S. critics—mostly media pundits and right-wing naysayers such as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck—have decried the decision, questioning the president’s accomplishments and calling the Prize a “farce” and a “travesty.”

Meanwhile, the GOP is even cashing in on the controversy, news reports state, mocking the award in a fund-raising letter signed by National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.

“The real question Americans are asking is, ‘What has President Obama actually accomplished?’” said Steele in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the president’s star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights.”

But others such as American University professor and expert in presidential history Allan J. Lichtman, argue that President Obama has “done a lot,” even as other supporters such as Princeton professor Cornel West says it holds the president to an even higher standard.

“It does put pressure on my dear brother [because] it’s going to be hard to have a peace prize and be a war president,” West told the AFRO. “So, Afghanistan will be a real challenge. The same will be true of the issue of investigating and prosecuting torturers.”

The dichotomy in reactions—favorable abroad, while “at home, [he] can do nothing right”—Walters said, is partly a function of the adage, “A prophet is not without honor save in his own country.” It’s also based on the economic and social turmoil in which the nation is caught up and—despite protestations to the contrary—it’s also about the president’s race. Morris argued, however, that it is the president’s intimacy with the burdens of race and class—a burden shared by Bunche and King—that made them such able, universal agents of peace.

Dr. King’s travails in the trenches of the racist South—imprisonment, beatings and eventual assassination—are well documented.

Bunche, too, fought with the evils of poverty and segregation. Born the son of a barber in Detroit, he was orphaned at 14 and worked his way through high school and college as a janitor before going to Harvard on a scholarship. But according to AFRO file stories, he spurned President Truman‘s offer of an appointment to assistant secretary of state because of the racial bias in Washington, where he spent 18 years as a Howard professor and diplomat. “Living in the nation’s capital is like serving out a sentence for any colored person who detests segregation and discrimination as I do,” he is quoted as saying in a June 11, 1949 AFRO article. “It’s extremely difficult for a colored person to maintain a semblance of human dignity in Washington. At every turn he is confronted with places he can’t enter because of his color—schools, hospitals, hotels, restaurants, theaters, bars, lunch counters and rest rooms, not to mention widespread job barriers.”

Obama, too, had to navigate the challenges of growing up in a single-parent home and as a biracial person in a nation where race-based bigotry yet thrives.

Their experience helped them “understand the necessity—despite the difficulty—of talking with people who don’t accept you” and also the plight of the oppressed, Morris said. Or, as an American group—who was advocating for Bunche’s promotion to U.N. secretary general—is quoted as saying in an October 1961 AFRO article, “It might take a man of color to lead us out of the demise of a strife-torn world.”

(Special to the NNPA.)

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