Ralph Johnson Bunche (; August 7, 1903 – December 9, 1971) was an American political scientist, diplomat, and leading actor in the mid-20th Century decolonization process and US civil rights movement, who received the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his late 1940s mediation in Israel. In the List of black Nobel laureates he is the first African American and first person of African descent to be awarded a Nobel Prize. He was involved in the formation and administration of the United Nations and played a major role in both the decolonization process and numerous peacekeeping operations sponsored by the UN. In 1963, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President John F. Kennedy. At the UN, Bunche gained such fame that Ebony magazine proclaimed him perhaps the most influential African American of the first half of the 20th Century and "[f]or nearly a decade, he was the most celebrated African American of his time both [in the US] and abroad."
Bunche served on the US delegation to both the Dumbarton Oaks Conference in 1944 and in San Francisco in 1945 that drafted the UN charter. He then served on the American delegation to the first session of the United Nations General Assembly in 1946 and joined the UN as head of the Trusteeship Department, beginning a long series of troubleshooting roles and responsibilities related to decolonization. In 1948 he became an acting mediator for the Middle East, negotiating an armistice between Egypt and Israel. For this success he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. He continued to serve at the United Nations, working on crises in the Sinai (1956), the Congo (1960), Yemen (1963), Cyprus (1964) and Bahrain in 1970, reporting directly to the UN Secretary-General. He also chaired study groups dealing with water resources in the Middle East. In 1957 he was promoted to Under-Secretary-General for special political affairs, having prime responsibility for peacekeeping roles. In 1965 he supervised the cease-fire following the war between India and Pakistan. He retired from the UN in June 1971, six months before his death.
Bunche was born in Detroit, in 1903 and baptized at the city's Second Baptist Church. When Ralph was a child, his family moved to Toledo, Ohio, where his father looked for work. They returned to Detroit in 1909 after his sister Grace was born, with the help of their maternal aunt, Ethel Johnson. Their father did not live with the family again after Ohio and had not been "a good provider." But he followed them when they moved to New Mexico.
Because of the declining health of his mother and uncle, the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 1915. His mother, "'a musically inclined woman who contributed much to what her son called a household “bubbling over with ideas and opinions'", died in 1917, and his uncle shortly thereafter. Thereafter, Bunche was raised by Ralph with his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, who he credited with instilling in him his pride in his race and his self-belief.
Bunche was a brilliant student, a debater, athlete and the valedictorian of his graduating class at Jefferson High School. He attended the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1927 as the valedictorian of his class. Using the money his community raised for his studies and a graduate scholarship at Harvard University, he earned a doctorate in political science.
Bunche earned a master's degree in political science in 1928 and a doctorate in 1934, while he was already teaching in the Department of Political Science at Howard University, an historically black college. At the time, it was typical for doctoral candidates to start teaching before completion of their dissertations. He was the first African American to gain a PhD in political science from an American university. From 1936 to 1938, Ralph Bunche studied anthropology and conducted postdoctoral research at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and at the London School of Economics (LSE), and later at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
He published his first book, World View of Race, in 1936, arguing that "race is a social concept which can be and is employed effectively to rouse and rationalize emotions [and] an admirable device for the cultivation of group prejudices." In 1940, Bunche served as the chief research associate to Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's landmark study of racial dynamics in the U.S., An American Dilemma.
For more than two decades (1928–1950), Bunche served as chair of the Department of Political Science at Howard University, where he also taught. Furthermore, he contributed to the Howard School of International Affairs with his work regarding the effect racism and imperialism had on global economic systems and international relations.
Bunche was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1950. He was the first Black member to be inducted into the Society since its founding in 1743. In 1953-54 he served as the President of the American Political Science Association. He served as a member of the Board of Overseers of his alma mater, 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 1941-43 Bunche worked in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the wartime intelligence service, as a senior social analyst on Colonial Affairs. In 1943, he was transferred from the OSS to the State Department. 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. In 2008, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration released a 51-page PDF of his OSS records, which is available online.
Near the close of World War II in 1944, Bunche took part in planning for the United Nations at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference, held in Washington, D.C. He was an adviser to the U.S. delegation for the Charter Conference of the United Nations held in 1945, when the governing document was drafted. Together with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Bunche was instrumental in the creation and adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. Bunche urged African-Americans to take UN positions. "Negroes ought to get busy and prepare to obtain some of the jobs in the United Nations' set-up," he counseled. "There are going to be all kinds of jobs and Negroes should attempt to get jobs on all levels. Some organization should be working on this now."
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 a period of rapid 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.
Bunche was instrumental in ending colonialism. His work to end colonialism began early in his academic career, during which time he developed into a leading scholar and expert of the impact of colonialism on subjugated people, and developed close relationships with many anti-colonialism leaders and intellectuals from the Caribbean and Africa, in particular during his field research and his time at the London School of Economics. Then, "[a]t the United Nations, Bunche had a great deal to do with the end of colonialism, with the organization's evolution from mandates to trusteeship, and with the operation of the UN's Trusteeship Division. Indeed, Bunche, as one of the principal authors of the chapters in the UN charter on non-self-determining territories and trusteeship, and later, as head of the Trusteeship Division of the UN, was a key architect of the institution of trusteeship."
Beginning in 1947, Bunche was involved with trying to resolve the Arab–Israeli conflict in Palestine. He served as assistant to the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine, and thereafter as the principal secretary of the UN 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 UN to mediate the conflict. These men chose the island of Rhodes for their base and working headquarters. In September 1948, Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem by members of the underground Jewish Lehi group, which was led by Yitzhak Shamir.
Following the assassination, Bunche became the UN's chief mediator; he conducted all future negotiations on Rhodes. The representative for Israel was Moshe Dayan; he reported in memoirs that much of his delicate negotiation with Bunche was conducted over a billiard table while the two were shooting pool. Optimistically, Bunche commissioned a local potter to create unique memorial plates bearing the name of each negotiator. When the agreement was signed, Bunche awarded these gifts. After unwrapping his, Dayan asked 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, Bunche received the Nobel 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. Bunche was appointed Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations in 1968.
Bunche was actively involved in movements for black liberation in his pre-United Nations days, including through leadership positions with various civil rights organizations and as one of the leading scholars on the issue of race in the US and colonialism abroad. During his time at the United Nations, Bunche remained a vocal supporter of the US Civil Rights Movement despite his activities being somewhat constrained by the codes governing international civil servants. He participated in the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech, and also, marching side-by-side with King, in the Selma to Montgomery march in 1965, which contributed to passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and federal enforcement of voting rights. As a result of his activism in the pre-war period, Bunche was a topic of discussion in the House Un-American Activities Committee. However, he was never a communist or Marxist, and indeed came under very heavy attack from the pro-Soviet press during his career.
Bunche lived in the Kew Gardens neighborhood of Queens, New York, in a home purchased with his Nobel Prize money, from 1953 until his death. Like many other people of color, Bunche continued to struggle against racism across the United States and sometimes in his own neighborhood. In 1959, he and his son, Ralph, Jr., were denied membership in the West Side Tennis Club in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. After the issue was given national coverage by the press, the club offered the Bunches an apology and invitation of membership. The official who had rebuffed them resigned. Bunche refused the offer, saying it was not based on racial equality and was an exception based only on his personal prestige. During his UN career, Bunche turned down appointments from Presidents Harry Truman and John Kennedy, because of the Jim Crow laws still in effect in Washington, DC. Historian John Hope Franklin credits him with "creating a new category of leadership among African-Americans" due to his unique ability "to take the power and prestige he accumulated...to address the problems of his community."
While teaching at Howard University in 1928, Bunche met Ruth Harris as one of his students. They later started seeing each other and married June 23, 1930. The couple had three children: Joan Harris Bunche (b. 1931), Jane Johnson Bunche (b. 1933), and Ralph J. Bunche, Jr. (b. 1943). His grandson, Ralph J. Bunche III, is the General Secretary of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, an international membership organization established to facilitate the voices of unrepresented and marginalised nations and peoples worldwide.
On October 9, 1966, their daughter Jane Bunche Pierce fell or jumped from the roof of her apartment building in Riverdale, Bronx; her death was believed to be suicide. She left no note. She and her husband Burton Pierce, a Cornell alumnus and labor relations executive, had three children. Their apartment was on the first floor of the building.
Bunche resigned from his position at the UN due to ill health, but this was not announced, as Secretary-General U Thant hoped he would be able to return soon. His health did not improve, and Bunche died December 9, 1971, from complications of heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. He was 67. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx, New York City.
Several of Bunche's residences are listed on the National Register of Historic Places