Who is Ralph Bunche?

Niki Foster

Ralph Bunche was an American political scientist and diplomat noted for his mediation between the Israelis and Palestinians in the 1940s. He was responsible for an armistice agreement between the two groups and became the first African American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize as a result. Ralph Bunche was also awarded the Medal of Freedom, one of the two highest civilian awards in the United States, from President Lyndon Johnson in 1971.

Ralph Bunche studied political science at Harvard.
Ralph Bunche studied political science at Harvard.

Ralph Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan on 7 August 1904, the son of a barber and an amateur musician. At the age of ten, he moved with his family to Albuquerque, New Mexico in the hopes of improving his parents' failing health. Sadly, they both died within a few years, and the orphaned Ralph Bunche moved to Los Angeles, California, where he lived with his grandmother, at the age of 13.

Ralph Bunche attended Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, where he stood out for his excellence in academics and debate. Bunche graduated as valedictorian, but was barred from the Los Angeles scholarship honor society because of his race. He continued his academic career at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), to which he earned a partial scholarship. He also worked throughout his college career in order to supplement his scholarship.

At UCLA, Ralph Bunche continued to distinguish himself in varied fields. He was a model student who excelled in debate, student politics, and athletics, and he graduated as valedictorian once again, with the highest Latin honor, summa cum laude. Ralph Bunche went on to earn his Master's degree in political science at Harvard University, paying his tuition with a university scholarship and a gift from a Los Angeles black women's organization that established a scholarship fund in his name. While completing his Doctorate at Harvard, Ralph Bunche worked as a professor at the predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D. C., where he established the Political Science Department.

After finishing his Ph.D. in 1934, Ralph Bunche spoke out against racism and segregation, founding the National Negro Congress in 1936. He also continued his study through field research in Africa and published pamphlets about political race relations in the United States and the world at large.

Ralph Bunche began working for the United States government during World War II, first in the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and later for the State Department. Ralph Bunche became one of the leaders of the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR) along with Alger Hiss. In 1945, Ralph Bunche was involved in planning the United Nations and in drafting its charter and creating the International Declaration of Human Rights.

Ralph Bunche's work in Palestine began in 1947 and culminated in the signing of the Armistice Agreements in 1949. A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements in the area. Bunche continued to work for peace in volatile regions, and in 1968 he became the undersecretary-general of the United Nations.

Ralph Bunche died in 1971, but his legacy of peace and civil rights endures. Ralph Bunche has given his name to a classroom building at UCLA, the oldest Federal Government library in the United States, and a park in New York City.

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