U.S. diplomat Ralph Bunche, a key member of the United Nations(UN) for more than two decades, and winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his successful negotiation of a truce between Arabs and Jews in Palestine the previous year, died on December 9, 1971, in New York City.
Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. He attended the southern branch of the University of California—which later became UCLA—graduating summa cum laude, as class valedictorian in 1927. He earned his master’s degree in government at Harvard University in 1928 and then became an instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Bunche established Howard’s first department of political science in 1929. In 1934, he was the first African American awarded a PhD from Harvard. He earned his doctorate in government and international relations while he was teaching at Howard.
Later, he collaborated with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on the monumental study of U.S. race relations published as An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). The study is famous for presenting the theory that poverty breeds poverty.
During World War II, Bunche worked for the Office of Strategic Services and the State Department. Toward the end of the war, he played an important role in preliminary planning for the United Nations, the organization that he served for the rest of his career.
In 1947, UN Secretary General Trygve Lie appointed Bunche as his personal representative to the UN Special Commission on Palestine. He also served as an aide to Count Folke Bernadotte, the chief UN mediator between the Arabs and Jews in the 1948-49 Israeli-Arab War. After Bernadotte was assassinated on September 17, 1948, Bunche became acting mediator. His successful negotiation of armistice agreements between the new state of Israel and the neighboring Arab states of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria earned him the Nobel Peace Prize External in 1950.
Bunche later oversaw UN peacekeeping missions to the Suez Canal in 1956, the Congo in 1960, and Cyprus in 1964. He also set up the UN Observation Mission to Yemen in 1963-64 and supervised the ceasefire that followed the 1965 Indo-Pakistan War.
Bunche served as a board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for twenty-two years; he also received that organization’s Spingarn Medal for outstanding achievement. After attracting some criticism for seeming to neglect the civil rights movement during the 1950s and 1960s, Bunche began to speak out more directly on U.S. racial discrimination.
In the last decade of his life, he became an increasingly vocal supporter of the civil rights movement in the United States, participating in the 1965 civil rights marches in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama.
- Follow events in the career of Ralph Bunche through the historic American newspapers collection Chronicling America. Start with Ralph Bunche: Topics in Chronicling America.
- Learn more about the achievements of Bunche through the post Dr. Ralph Bunche, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Peace Negotiator in the Law Library’s In Custodia Legis blog.
- The Library of Congress African American History Month Web site celebrates contributions by African Americans in music and literature and also covers social issues.
- Learn about events that led up to the Civil Rights era by reviewing electronic resources in African American History Online: A Resource Guide
- Read the recollections of American diplomats, including some who interacted with Ralph Bunche in his various roles with the UN and the State Department, through the collection Frontline Diplomacy: The Foreign Affairs Oral History Collection of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
- The Civil Rights History Project online collection includes interviews with participants in the movement as well as articles and essays on significant events and aspects of the time. The American Folklife Center also maintains the Civil Rights History Project National Survey of Collections which provides information about existing oral history collections with relevance to the Civil Rights Movement found in repositories throughout the country.
- Learn more about the African-American quest for equality. Visit the online exhibition The African American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship which includes a section on the Civil Rights Era.
- Visit Library sites for information on the countries that Ralph Bunche was involved in during his career at the United Nations.
- The Library of Congress’ Country Studies, a series of books prepared by the Federal Research Division (FRD), provides information about 101 countries and regions including India and Pakistan. The country study for Israel includes a history of Palestine and Israel. There also are Country Profiles which offer brief, summarized information. Latest updates for the Profiles are noted and there will be no future updates.
- The World’s Transportation Commission collection documents transportation systems, landscapes, and local inhabitants of countries in North Africa, Asia, Australia, and Oceania in the late 19th century.