Ralph J. Bunche

Jul 31st, 2010 | By | Category: Politics, Social Sciences
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Ralph J. Bunche1904 – 1971  Ralph Bunche blazed a lifelong record of achievement in the study of social interactions, acquired a keen understanding of racism at home and abroad, and pioneered the development of modern mediation techniques which he applied successfully to some of the most intractable conflicts of his era. One of America’s best known and most accomplished diplomats, he also championed various civil rights causes throughout his illustrious career.

Unlimited Potential

Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1904. His father, Fred, was a barber in a shop serving an exclusively white clientele. Both he and Bunche’s mother, Olive, suffered from poor health. The family moved to New Mexico when their son was 10 in the hope the climate would favor them, but the parents died two years later. Bunche and his two sisters were taken to Los Angeles and raised by their grandmother, who had been born into slavery. She imparted to her charges a philosophy of self-respect and unlimited potential for those willing to work hard for success. Bunche took the lesson to heart early on by selling newspapers, working as a house-boy and carpet-layer, and doing other odd jobs to help with the family’s slim earnings.

No sooner did Bunche begin school than his remarkable intellect made itself evident. He earned prizes in English and history in elementary school, and at Jefferson High School he competed in numerous sports, was a debater, and was class valedictorian, even while being denied admission to the citywide honor society due to his race. Continuing at the University of California at Los Angeles, he received an athletic scholarship. While working as a janitor to earn his living expenses, he succeeded in playing varsity basketball, continued in debating and journalism, and in 1927 received his bachelors degree summa cum laude with a major in international relations, once again class valedictorian and Phi Beta Kappa.

Harvard University awarded Bunche a scholarship for graduate studies in political science, supplemented by a cash gift donated by the African American community of Los Angeles. He earned his masters degree in 1928 and continued directly to doctoral studies at Harvard while intermittently teaching at Howard University. There he also chaired the Political Science Department until 1950, and met his wife Ruth Harris whom he married in 1930 and with whom he would have three children. He conducted field research in Africa, and won the Toppan Prize for outstanding research for his dissertation in 1934. He was the first African American to receive a Ph.D. from Harvard in political science.

Bunche’s civil rights activism began during this period. He defended activist students at Howard, served as co-director of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College in 1936, and wrote “A World View of Race,” a study of race relations in the U.S., in that year. His work with Swedish Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal contributed to Myrdal’s classic 1944 book on U.S. racism, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. He was consulted by U.S. Presidents on racial matters, and became a close associate of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., who he joined to lead the Montgomery, Alabama civil rights march while serving on the board of the NAACP. His intellectual strength informed his philosophy, “Segregation and democracy are incompatible.”

The culmination of Bunche’s academic and social insights occurred in his work with the U.S. government and the United Nations. He advised the State Department and military on colonial regions during World War II, and became acting chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs (a position initially refused him due to prejudice). He was the first Black to serve on the U.S. delegation to the first General Assembly of the nascent U.N. At the request of Secretary General Trygve Lie in 1946, Bunche was placed in charge of the U.N.’s Department of Trusteeship. His ongoing relationship with that organization led to his most historically significant achievement, defusing the Arab-Jewish conflict in what was then known as Palestine. From 1947 to 1949, first as Principal Secretary of the U.N. Palestine Commission and then as acting U.N. Mediator on Palestine, Bunche worked to ease the escalating conflict and violence in the region. After a tireless round of mediation and negotiation lasting much of the year 1949, he obtained armistice agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Recognition of the achievement was immediate. Upon his return to the U.S., the city of Los Angeles created “Ralph Bunche Day,” the NAACP awarded him its highest honor, the Spingarn Prize. In 1950 he became the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize. He continued his involvement with the U.N. as Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs and Undersecretary General, the highest-ranking U.S. diplomat in the U.N. He is credited with creating the first U.N. peacekeeping force in response to the Suez Crisis, and with developing the mediation principles now used in all U.N. peacekeeping efforts.

Bunche’s health began to fail in 1970, and he died in 1971 with an enormous record of achievement. He had received over 40 honorary degrees, the Theodore Roosevelt Association Medal of Honor, the Presidential Medal of Honor, and the U.S. Medal of Freedom. He worked with world leaders such as Gamal Abdal Nasser, Dean Rusk, John F. Kennedy, Dag Hammarskjöld, U Thant, Lyndon Johnson, and Jawaharlal Nehru. A park named “The Ralph Bunche Park,” dedicated to peace, is located facing the United Nations building in New York City. Upon his death, the U.N. General Assembly stood for a moment of silence, perhaps the most articulate eulogy possible for such a great man of peace.


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