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

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

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