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Ralph Johnson Bunche
August 7, 1904 – December 9, 1971
Political Scientist, Diplomat and Nobel Laureate


Ralph Johnson Bunche was an American political scientist and diplomat who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Palestine. He was the first person of color to be so honored in the history of the Prize. He was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations. In 1963, he received the Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy.

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan to an African American family; his father was a barber, his mother an amateur musician. His father had ancestors who were free before the American Revolution. They moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was a child to improve his parents' health. His parents died soon after, and he was raised in Los Angeles by his grandmother.

Bunche was a brilliant student, a debater, and the valedictorian 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 at Harvard University. There he earned a master's degree in political science in 1928 and a doctorate in 1934, when he was already teaching in Howard University's Department of Political Science. It was typical then for doctoral candidates to start teaching before completion of their dissertations. He was the first black American to gain a PhD in political science from an American university. From 1936 to 1938, Ralph Bunche conducted postdoctoral research in anthropology at London School of Economics (LSE), and later at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Career

Bunche chaired the Department of Political Science at Howard University from 1928 until 1950, where he taught generations of students. He lived in the Brookland neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and was a member of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate at Harvard.

"Throughout his career, Bunche has maintained strong ties with education. He chaired the Department of Political Science at Howard University from 1928 until 1950; taught at Harvard University from 1950 to 1952; served as a member of the New York City Board of Education (1958-1964), as a member of the Board of Overseers of Harvard University (1960-1965), as a member of the Board of the Institute of International Education, and as a trustee of Oberlin College, Lincoln University, and New Lincoln School."

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." In 1936-40 Bunche served as contributing editor of the journal Science and Society: A Marxian Quarterly.

World War II Years

Bunche spent time during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) as senior social analyst on Colonial Affairs before joining the State Department. In 1943 Bunche went to the State Department, where he was appointed Associate Chief of the division of Dependent Area Affairs under Alger Hiss. With Hiss, Bunche became 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.

Work with the United Nations

At the close of the Second World War, Bunche was active in preliminary planning for the United Nations (Dumbarton Oaks Conversations held in Washington D.C. in 1944). He was also an adviser to the U.S. delegation for the "Charter Conference" of the United Nations held in 1945. Additionally, he was closely involved in drafting the charter of the United Nations. Ralph Bunche along with Eleanor Roosevelt were considered instrumental in the creation and adoption of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

According to the United Nations document "Ralph Bunche: Visionary for Peace", during his 25 years of service to the United Nations, he

...championed the principle of equal rights for everyone, regardless of race or creed. He believed in "the essential goodness of all people, and that no problem in human relations is insoluble." Through the UN Trusteeship Council, Bunche readied the international stage for an unprecedented period of transformation, dismantling the old colonial systems in Africa and Asia, and guiding scores of emerging nations through the transition to independence in the post-war era.

Arab-Israeli conflict and Nobel Peace Prize

Beginning in 1947, Bunche was involved with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He served as assistant to the United Nations 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 Sweden's Count Folke Bernadotte, who had been appointed by the U.N. to mediate the conflict. These men chose the island of Rhodes for their base and working headquarters. In September, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by members of the underground Jewish group Lehi.

Following the assassination, Dr. Bunche became the U.N.'s chief mediator and chose to conduct all future negotiations on Rhodes. The representative for Israel was Moshe Dayan who reported in memoirs that much of his delicate negotiation with Ralph Bunche was conducted over a billiard table while shooting pool with him. Optimistically, Dr. Bunche commissioned a local potter to create unique memorial plates bearing the name of each negotiator. When the agreement was signed, Dr. Bunche awarded these gifts. After unwrapping his, Moshe Dayan asked Ralph Bunche what might have happened if no agreement had been reached. "I'd have broken the plates over your damn heads", Bunche answered. For achieving the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Dr. Bunche received the Peace Prize, in 1950. He continued to work for the United Nations, mediating in other strife-torn regions, including the Congo, Yemen, Kashmir, and Cyprus. He rose 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, and participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and also in the famous Selma to Montgomery, Alabama march that led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Bunche was a resident of the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York

Bunche died in 1971 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. He was 68.

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