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diplomat, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. His father, Fred Bunche, was a barber in a whites-only shop; his mother, Olive (Johnson) Bunche, was an amateur musician; and his grandmother, "Nana" Johnson, had been born into slavery. The family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Ralph was ten. Both of his parents died two years later, and his grandmother took Ralph and his two sisters to Los Angeles, California.
A very good student, Bunche won prizes in both history and English in elementary school and was the valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, where he had also been a debater and all-around athlete. An athletic scholarship (basketball) paid for his collegiate expenses at the University of California at Los Angeles, while a janitorial job paid for his personal expenses. He graduated summa cum laude, valedictorian of his class, with a major in international relations in 1927. Subsequently awarded a scholarship from Harvard University, he received his Master's Degree in Political Science from that institution in 1928, and his Doctorate in 1934.
While working on his doctorate, Bunche taught political science at Howard University. The Rosenwald Fellowship, which he held in 1932-1933, enabled him to conduct research in Africa for a dissertation comparing the administration of French Togoland, a mandated area, and Dahomey, a colony. His dissertation was awarded the Toppan Prize for outstanding research in social studies. From 1936 to 1938, on a Social Science Research Council fellowship, he did postdoctoral research in anthropology at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and Capetown University in South Africa. Between 1938 and 1940, Bunch collaborated with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in the monumental study of U.S. race relations that resulted in the publication of An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy in 1944.
An adviser to the Department of State and to the military on Africa and colonial areas of strategic military importance during World War II, Bunche moved from his first position as an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services to the desk of acting chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs in the State Department. He also served as an adviser or delegate to nine international conferences in four years, including the one that drafted the charter of the United Nations. In 1946, U.N. Secretary-General Trygve Lie placed Bunche in charge of the Department of Trusteeship of the U.N. to handle problems of the world's peoples who had not yet attained self-government.
From June of 1947 to August of 1949, Bunche worked on what became the most important assignment of his career, the confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. First appointed as assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, he then became principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission, which was charged with carrying out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly. In early 1948, when this plan was dropped and fighting between Arabs and Israelis became especially severe, the UN appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator and Ralph Bunche as his chief aide. On September 17, 1948, Count Bernadotte was assassinated, and Bunche was named acting UN mediator on Palestine. Eleven months later, Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States. For this accomplishment, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.
From 1955 to 1967, Bunche served as U.N. Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs. In 1956, he supervised the deployment of a 6,000-man United Nations peacekeeping force in the area of the Suez Canal following the invasion of that area by British, French, and Israeli troops. In 1960 he again found himself in charge of U.N. peacekeeping troops, this time in the Republic of the Congo region. And, in 1964, he went to Cyprus to direct the 6,000 troops that intervened between Greeks and Turks. During this time Bunche also played an important role in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and in the United Nations program concerning peaceful uses of atomic energy. He became Under Secretary General of the United Nations in 1968.
In addition to his diplomatic work, Bunche was also an advocate for civil rights. He participated in Martin Luther King's March on Washington in 1963, as well as civil rights marches in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, and supported the action programs of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and of the Urban League.
Suffering from heart disease and diabetes, Bunche resigned from the United Nations on October 1, 1971. He died in New York City, New York, on December 9, 1971, and is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York.
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This page was last updated on August 07, 2018.