A winner of the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize, Ralph Johnson Bunche was a talented student from an early age, and won his first academic prize for English in elementary school. Born into a working-class African American family in Detroit, Michigan, Bunche was raised by a father who worked in an all-white barbershop. Bunche’s mother was an amateur musician, and his maternal grandmother, who lived in his home, was a former slave. Bunche’s parents died while he was still a child, and his grandmother relocated Bunche and his siblings to Los Angeles, where he helped to support his family by doing odd jobs. At the same time Bunche completed his education at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles and during these years he maintained a variety of extra-curricular activities, including debate, football, basketball, and track.
Bunche graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and entered University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on an athletic scholarship. Bunche studied international relations at UCLA and participated in both debate and campus journalism. He also played varsity basketball and supported his living expenses by working part-time at a campus janitorial job. Bunche graduated, summa cum laude, from UCLA in 1927, as valedictorian of his university class. He was subsequently granted a scholarship to complete graduate studies in political science at Harvard University, which he completed in 1928. Between 1928 and 1934 Bunche completed a doctoral dissertation at Harvard that focused on French governmental practices in Togoland and Dahomey, Africa.
Bunche’s career in public service was a natural outgrowth of his extensive work in education. As a highly regarded authority on race relations, his speeches and writings conveyed a clear message that racial segregation was not compatible with democracy. Bunche called on the Black community to seek equal rights and embrace the responsibilities that came with those rights. At the same time, he encouraged whites to accept the concept that true democracy could not exist in a system of segregation. Bunche’s extensive work in political science and race relations led him to become involved with the national civil rights movement organized by Martin Luther King, Jr., in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. His work with this movement eventually led him to serve in both the United Nations and the United States Department of the State.
Nobel Peace Prize
It was in his position within the United States Department of the State, where Bunche served from June of 1947 to August of 1949, that he worked to resolve the confrontation and ongoing tensions between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. In early 1948, when conflict and violence between Arabs and Israelis peaked, the United Nations appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as lead mediator for the negotiation of a cease-fire, and Bunche was assigned Bernadotte’s top aide. Bernadotte was assassinated shortly after this appointment, and Bunche was immediately named as the United Nations lead mediator on Palestine. Bunche subsequently negotiated and armistice agreement between Israel and the Arab States, for which he was awarded the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.