“If today we speak of peace, we also speak of the United Nations, for in this year, peace and the United Nations have become inseparable…who could be so unseeing as not to realize that in modern war, victory is illusory; that the harvest of war can be only misery, destruction, and degradation?" - Ralph Bunche
For some of you who might be asking “Who the heck is Ralph Bunche?”
Well, for starters he was the first African- American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Peace, the recipient of over 40 honorary degrees from various institutions, awarded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s coveted Springarn Medal, the Theodore Roosevelt Association Medal of Honor, The Presidential Medal of Honor and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Not too shabby if you ask me.
Born Ralph Johnson Bunche on August 7, 1904 in Detroit, Michigan. His father was a barber and his mother was an amateur musician. By the time Ralph had turned ten, the family had packed up their belongings and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico on the pretense that the dry climate would improve his parents failing health. It was not to be. They died two years later and Ralph (along with his two sister) moved to Los Angeles where he was raised by his grandmother.
It didn’t take long for him to display his academic talents. After graduating as the valedictorian of his high school class it was on to the University of California where he eventually graduated in 1927 summa cum laude and valedictorian. He left with a major in international relations.
It wasn’t long after that Harvard University came a callin’ and offered him a scholarship. His neighbors in the black community chipped in and took up collection that raised a thousand dollars and Bunche headed east to resume his studies in political science. He got his master’s degree in 1928. He then spent the next six or so years splitting his time by teaching at Howard University and working towards his doctorate at Harvard. After completing his dissertation (something about Togoland and the French, his did some post doctoral research at Northwestern University and the London School of Economics.
With the advent of World War II, Bunche was called upon to provide his expertise to the government and the United Nations. Acting as an analyst, he provided input to the Allies about the strategic military importance of Africa during the war.
In 1946 Bunche was working in the employ of the State Department when then UN Secretary General Trygve Lie sorta borrowed him and the rest is history. He was associated with the UN up until the time of his death.
The real highlight of his career came during the yeas of 1947 through 1949. These were the years when the confrontations between the Arabs and Jews in Palestine were at their peak. (I guess not much has changed huh?). He was appointed to the UN Palestine Commission which was placed in charge of carrying out the partitioning off of lands to the Arabs and the Jews. When the original plan was dropped in 1948, the fighting between the two increased. A certain Count Folke Benadotte was appointed by the United Nations to mediate the two parties. He was assassinated in September of 1948 and Bunche assumed control of the negotiations. He managed to get the parties back to the table and after eleven months of negotiations finally got the parties to sign armistice agreements. (Hey, they might not have worked but you can’t blame a guy for trying!.)
He returned home from the Middle East to a hero’s welcome. When he got to New York City, he was greeted with a ticker tape parade. In LA, it was declared “Ralph Bunce Day”.
The Civil Rights Movement
While better known for his various roles at the United Nations. Ralph Bunche was also somewhat visible in the civil rights arena As a matter of fact, he was a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s so called “Black Cabinet”. Although members of the “Black Cabinet” were not officially Cabinet members, they did advise the President on issues regarding race and the New Deal. President Harry S. Truman thought so much of Bunche that he offered him a position as Assistant Secretary of State but Bunche declined the role on the basis of the segregated housing conditions that existed in Washington D.C. He also helped organize and participated in a little event that came to be known as the March on Washington.
Bunche was often criticized by other member of the civil rights movement for being too “moderate”. They felt that with his reputation in the diplomatic arena, he could advance the cause further in the form of a leadership role at the NAACP or the Urban League. Bunch declined, preferring to make his stance on the matters known in the form of publications and speeches. After all, he still had his duties to attend to at the UN where he remained active until 1967.
Ralph Bunche died at the relatively early age of 67 in 1971. A nation mourned his passing.