As Black History Month nears its close, I have come across another innovative, radical, groundbreaking, extremely intelligent individual who few likely know by name. Ralph Bunche was an academic, political scientist, activist, and diplomat. While alive, he was celebrated for his peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean, for helping form the United Nations, and for his work in the Civil Rights Movement. And, not only was he the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, he was the first person of color to receive the award.
Ralph Bunche was born in 1904 in Detroit. His father was a barber, believed to be descended from ancestors established as free people of color in Virginia before the American Revolution. His mother was a musician; her mother was mixed race, born from an enslaved mother and an Irish planter father.
His parents separated, and when each of them showed ailing health, they all moved to Albuquerque, NM in 1915 to live with his grandmother. His parents died when he was 13 years old, and the next year his grandmother moved with Bunche and his siblings to Los Angeles.
Bunche excelled in school, winning awards from elementary school onward. In high school he participated in debate, was an athlete (competing in football, basketball, baseball, and track), and he was valedictorian of his graduating class. He attended the University of California – Los Angeles on an athletic scholarship and majored in international relations, graduating in 1927 summa cum laude and was again the valedictorian. He then went to Harvard University where, in 1928, he became the first African American to receive a PhD in political science.
For the next six years, Bunche alternated between teaching at Howard University and working toward the doctorate at Harvard. While at Howard, he reorganized and headed the political science department and became one of the leaders of a group of radical Black intellectuals. This group of men, of which Bunche was the youngest, represented a new generation of African American intellectuals who believed that people needed to focus on issues of class, not race, in order to solve the “Negro problem.” This approach was radically different from that of their predecessors, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, who desired reform through racial solidarity. The “Young Turks” (as Du Bois labeled them) believed integration was key – an idea that fed into the ideals developed by MLK, but which put Bunche in opposition to Black nationalists, such as Malcolm X.
Bunche was given the Rosenwald Fellowship, which he held from 1932 to 1933; this allowed him the opportunity to conduct research in Africa for a dissertation, which earned him 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.
He was co-director of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College in 1936. As an extension of earlier research, he wrote A World View of Race. He participated in the Carnegie Corporation’s survey of the Negro in America, under the direction of the Swedish sociologist, Gunnar Myrdal, which resulted in the publication of Myrdal’s book, An American Dilemma, in 1944.
In 2008, the US National Archives and Records Administration made public the fact that in 1941, during World War II, Bunche joined the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS) – the precursor organization to the CIA. He was later assigned a senior post in the US State Department.
Bunche served on the Preparatory Commission that helped create the United Nations. He left the State Department and officially joined the United Nations in 1946. And, he was a member of the Black Cabinet that was consulted on minority problems by Roosevelt’s administration.
From 1947 to 1949, Bunche worked on the most important assignment of his career – the confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. He was first appointed as assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, then as principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission, which was charged with carrying out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly. When this plan was dropped and fighting became severe, the UN appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator and Ralph Bunche as his chief aide. Count Bernadotte was assassinated four months later, and Bunche was named acting UN mediator on Palestine. After eleven months of ceaseless negotiating, Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States.
When he returned to the US, there was a ticket-tape parade in New York City in his honor and he was awarded the Spingarn Prize by the NAACP. He was given over thirty honorary degrees over the next three years. And, in 1950, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize – the first of the eleven people of color to ever win the prize.
In 1949, he declined President Truman’s offer of the position of assistant secretary of state because of the segregated housing conditions in Washington, DC.
During the McCarthy Hearings in the 1950’s, Bunche’s attackers focused on his involvement with the National Negro Congress, an organization he helped found to advance the common interests of Black and white workers. Bunche was eventually cleared of all charges and continued his work at the UN.
In 1956, he supervised the deployment of 6,000 United Nations peacekeeping troops around the Suez Canal to defuse the crisis initiated by the attack of Israel, France, and Britain upon Egypt. In the 1960s, he led peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Cyprus. In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Kennedy. That same year, he participated in the March on Washington. He helped lead the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, and he was an active supporter of the NAACP and the Urban League. He became UN Under Secretary General in 1968.
“To suggest that war can prevent war is a base play on words and a despicable form of warmongering. The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honorable recourse in the effort to save the peace. The world has had ample evidence that war begets only conditions that beget further war.” – Ralph Bunche
Despite his contributions and accomplishments, he had to deal with racism his entire life. He moved to Queens, New York in 1953. In 1959, he and his son were denied membership in the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. That denial got national media coverage, and so the club issued an apology, offered a membership, and fired the man who made the initial decision. Bunche declined the offer, because it was only made due to his political standing while the club remained rooted in racism.
In addition to his earlier academic work at Howard, during his work with the UN Bunche taught at Harvard University from 1950 to 1952. He also served as a member of the New York City Board of Education, as a member of the Board of Overseers at Harvard University, 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 his journey … through the universities and the capitals, the continents and the conflicts, of the world, Bunche left a legacy of principle, fairness, creative innovation, and solid achievement which deeply impressed his contemporaries and inspired his successors. His memory lives on, especially in the long struggle for human dignity and against racial discrimination and bigotry, and the growing effectiveness of the United Nations in resolving conflicts and keeping the peace. As Ralph Johnson Bunche would have wished, that is his living memorial.” – the final words of Sir Brian Urquhart’s book Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey