Ralph Bunche

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Ralph Bunche, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1951

Ralph Johnson Bunche (August 7, 1904December 9, 1971) was an American political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in Palestine in the late 1940s that led to an armistice agreement between the Jews and Arabs in the region. He was the first African-American, and first individual of non-European ethnicity or race to be so honored in the history of the Prize.[1]

Early life

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan to an African-American family; his father was a barber, his mother an amateur musician. They moved to Los Angeles when he was a child to improve his parents' health. His parents died soon after, and he was raised by his grandmother, who looked "white" but was an active member of the black community.

Bunche was a brilliant student, a top debater, and the valedictorian (top ranked student) of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles and graduated summa cum laude in 1927 -- again as the valedictorian of his class. Using the money his community raised for his studies, and a scholarship from the University, he studied for a master's and a doctorate in political science at Harvard. He taught at Howard University while obtaining his PhD.

In 1936 Bunche authored a pamphlet entitled A World View of Race. In it Bunche wrote: "And so class will some day supplant race in world affairs. Race war will then be merely a side-show to the gigantic class war which will be waged in the big tent we call the world."

World War II years

Bunche spent time during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA). before joining the State Department In 1943 Bunche went to the State Department where he became associate chief of the division of dependent area affairs under Alger Hiss. He became, with Hiss, one of the leaders of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR).

He participated in the preliminary planning for the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference of 1945, and in 1946 he was a member of the first U.S. delegation to the U.N. He then became an employee of the U.N. as the first Director of its new Trusteeship Department, at the appointment of Secretary-General Trygve Lie.

U.N. mediator

Beginning in 1947, he was involved with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He served as assistant to the U.N. Special Committee on Palestine, and thereafter as the principal secretary of the U.N. Palestine Commission. In 1948 he traveled to the Middle East as the chief aide to Count Folke Bernadotte, who had been appointed by the U.N. to attempt to mediate the conflict. In September, Bernadotte was assassinated by members of Lehi (group). Bunche became the U.N.'s chief mediator and concluded the task with the signing of the 1949 Armistice Agreements, the work for which he received the Peace Prize and many other honors.

He continued to work for the United Nations, mediating in other strife-torn regions including The Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus, eventually rising to the position of undersecretary-general in 1968.

Prominent African-American

As a prominent African-American, Bunche was an active and vocal supporter of the civil rights movement, though he never actually held a titled position in the major organizations of the movement.

Bunche died in 1971 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

A bust of Ralph Bunche, on the entrance to Bunche Hall, overlooks the Sculpture Garden at UCLA.

Ralph Bunche Park is in New York City, across First Avenue from the United Nations headquarters.

Selected Bibliography

  • Bunche, Ralph, A World View of Race. (Bronze Booklet Series. Washington, D.C.: Associates in Negro Folk Education, 1936) [Reprint, Port Washington, NY, Kennikat Press, 1968; excerpt in Ralph Bunche: Selected Speeches and Writings, edited by Charles P. Henry]
  • Bunche, Ralph. The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR, edited with an Introduction by Dewey W. Grantham. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973) [A version of a Ralph Bunche 1941 research memorandum prepared for the Carnegie-Myrdal Study, "The Negro in America"]
  • Bunche, Ralph. A Brief and Tentative Analysis of Negro Leadership, edited with an Introduction by Jonathan Scott Holloway (NY, New York University Press, 2005) [A version of "The Negro in America"]
  • Edgar, Robert R., ed. An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche, 28 September 1937 - 1 January 1938. (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1992)
  • Henry, Charles P., ed. Ralph J. Bunche: Selected Speeches and Writings. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995)
  • Henry, Charles P. Ralph Bunche: Model Negro or American Other? (NY, New York University Press, 1999)
  • Rivlin, Benjamin, ed. Ralph Bunche: The Man and His Times (New York: Holmes & Meyer, 1990)
  • Urquhart, Brian. Ralph Bunche: An American Life (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993) [Paperback edition titled Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey, 1998]


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