Johnson Bunche (1903-1971), an African American scholar, educator,
Africanist, and diplomat, achieved national and international
prominence in 1949 after negotiating armistice agreements
between Israel and 4 Arab states, for which he was awarded
the Nobel Prize for Peace. A political scientist, professor
and diplomat, Bunche advocated the peaceful resolution of
conflict and championed the cause of justice and equality
for all people regardless of race or economic status and played
a major role in decolonizing much of the colonial world. Bunche
was appointed Undersecretary-General for Special Political
Affairs at the United Nations, the highest post ever held
by an American in the world organization.
in modest circumstances and orphaned at an early age, Ralph
Bunche grew up under the guidance of his maternal grandmother,
Mrs. Lucy Taylor Johnson. Overcoming economic difficulties
and racial prejudice to excel in academics, he graduated valedictorian
both at high school and at UCLA, winning a scholarship for
graduate work at Harvard University. At Harvard he became
the first African American to receive a Ph.D in political
science in the United States. Extensive field research for
a doctoral dissertation on colonialism in Africa and scholarly
investigation of international race relations culminated in
the classic book A World View of Race (1936).
Later, he served as chief researcher and writer for Gunnar
Myrdal's pivotal study of American race relations, An
American Dilemma (1944).
career as a scholar and civil rights activist began at Howard
University in 1928. He reorganized and headed the political
science department at the university and became one of the
leaders of a small cadre of radical Black intellectuals whom
W.E.B. Du Bois labeled the "Young Turks". Bunche was the youngest
member of this group which included Sterling Brown, E. Franklin
Frazier, Abram Harris and Emmet Dorsey. These men represented
a new generation of African American intellectuals who approached
the "Negro problem" from a perspective that was radically
different from that of their predecessors.
and the other "Young Turks" argued during the '30s
and '40s that "focusing on issues of class, not race" was
the key to solving the "Negro problem".
and other older Black intellectuals did not share this point
of view. Even during the Great Depression, Du Bois favored
reform through racial solidarity. In contrast, Bunche's approach
to race relations was essentially integrationist -- a perspective
that would become the hallmark of Black leaders such as A.
Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King, Jr. Later, during
the Civil Rights Movement of the '60s, this position would
also set Bunche apart from, and sometimes in opposition to,
Black nationalists such as Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael.
1931 and 1943, he and his wife -- Ruth Ethel Harris -- had
three children, Joan Harris Bunche, Jane Johnson Bunche Pierce,
and Ralph Johnson Bunche, Jr.
1941, he moved from Howard University to wartime service at
the Office of Strategic Services. From the OSS he was appointed
to a senior post at the State Department during World War
II. As advisor to the US delegation to the San Francisco Conference,
Bunche played a key role in drafting Chapters XI and XII of
the United Nations Charter.
joined the UN Secretariat in 1946 as director of the Trusteeship
Division. In this position he was responsible for overseeing
the administration of the UN Trust Territories and their progress
towards self-government and independence.
successful mediation of the Palestine conflict, which resulted
in the signing of Armistice Agreements in 1949 between Israel
and four Arab states, was a feat of international diplomacy
that is unparalleled in the long history of the Arab-Israeli
conflict. It won him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, the first
time that a person of color had been so honored.
the McCarthy era in the 1950's, the search to identify Communist
sympathizers in international organizations led to Bunche.
His 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. He played significant peacekeeping and mediation roles
in major international conflicts, including the Suez War of
1956; the Congo crisis; conflicts in Yemen, Cyprus and Kashmir
and the Six-Day War of 1967. He is considered the "Father
of Peacekeeping" because he conceived and implemented many
of the techniques and strategies for international peacekeeping
operations that are still in use today by the UN.
Bunche spoke out against racism in the US, though his position
at the UN did not allow him to publicly criticize US policy,
and he was criticized for doing so. In the 1960's, he actively
supported Martin Luther King, Jr's non-violent tactics and
marched with King in the 1963 March on Washington and again
in 1965 in the Selma-to-Montgomery Voting Rights March.
the decades following his Nobel Peace Prize award, Bunche
became one of the most revered public figures in America and
the world. President Truman asked him to become Assistant
Secretary of State, and President Kennedy approached him about
joining the administration as Secretary of State. In each
instance, he declined in favor of continuing his work as Undersecretary-General
at the UN. He was also offered a full professorship at Harvard
University and was awarded 69 honorary doctorates from America's
leading universities. His numerous awards include the Presidential
Medal of Freedom, the highest award the country can give its
fostering decolonization, negotiating conflicts and championing
human rights and peace in the world in collaboration with
Eleanor Roosevelt, he came to be identified as the "embodiment
of the United Nations actively, but pragmatically, pursuing
its high ideals."
UN accomplishments, Bunche was a symbol of racial progress,
as the first African American to cross over in a field other
than sports and entertainment. Bunche always maintained his
modesty and constantly reminded his Black audiences that he
was not free as long as they were not free. Yet in many ways
he had risen above race.
his name is seldom mentioned in American history books, the
media, the academic community or the African-American community
-- even in the corridors of the UN. But the legacy of his
work lives on in the UN and wherever people fight for equality,
justice and human dignity. Perhaps the final words of Sir
Brian Urquhart's book Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey
best summarize the essence of Bunche's contribution.
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.
Home | Early Influences | Scholar-Activist | Drive to Decolonize | Mr. UN
The Peacemaker | Man & the Myth | Timeline | Educational Resources
Making the Movie | Site Credits