Ralph Bunche

Ralph Bunche served brilliantly as a professor and diplomat, and made many significant global contributions.

Ralph Bunche

On the March

Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work in the Arab-Israeli peace talks that began in September 1948 and concluded in a formal armistice.

The great African-American intellectual Ralph Bunche lived a life so crammed with incident and achievement that its summary reads, implausibly, like the life story of at least three men, each of them a genius. He achieved distinction as one of the nation's premier diplomats, as an academic, and as a prominent civil rights leader. He was also one of the rare African-American celebrities of his day whose prominence was based on his extraordinary intellectual vision.

Despite the troubling fact that much of his thinking on racial matters never reached the large number of people who admired him, Bunche retains his status as one of the truly great minds of his era.

A brilliant student who graduated valedictorian from his high school, Bunche received summa cum laude honors from UCLA, and joined the faculty of Howard University at the tender age of 24. He was the first African-American to receive a Ph.D. in political science from a U.S. institution of higher learning. (He received the degree from Harvard in 1934.)

In 1936, he founded the National Negro Congress, an umbrella organization that brought together over 500 separate organizations. (Asa Randolph was chosen as the Congress's first president.) In 1938, Bunche helped the Carnegie Corporation to conduct an influential in-depth assessment of the status of African-Americans. Two years later, he published his book Ideologies, Tactics, and Achievements of Negro Betterment and Interracial Organizations.

His primary emphasis, however, was on world affairs. He was one of America's most accomplished diplomats, the first African-American to serve as a division head in the State Department, and a member of the American delegation at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. In an era when African-American presence at the highest levels of public life was all but unheard of, Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in arranging an armistice following the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. (He was principal secretary of the UN's Palestine Commission.)

In 1955, he was named undersecretary of the United Nations; in that role, he coordinated UN peacekeeping efforts in the Suez region and in the Congo. In 1963, Bunche received the Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the United States—from President Kennedy.

During his life, Bunche was effectively “mainstreamed”—meaning that his image was often manipulated for the benefit of white audiences in ways he neither intended or approved. Major media outlets often presented his life story as “proof” that racial prejudice had been overcome in the United States; many African-Americans came to resent his prominence in American life and saw it as evidence of tokenism. Only in recent years has a reassessment of his extraordinary work and achievements taken place.

Walking the Path

In 1965's triumphant civil-rights procession from Selma to Montgomery, Bunche walked at the head of the march, next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Together, facing down the obscenities and insults of the racists they passed, two of the greatest Americans of their era, or any era, resolutely walked their own chosen path … and led the procession to its rightful destination.

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