Ralph Johnson Bunche was born on August 7, 1904 (some sources say 1903), in Detroit, Michigan. After his family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bunche’s mother died during his early adolescence; reports vary on whether his father died soon after or had left the family. As a result, Bunche and his younger sister relocated to Los Angeles and were taken in by his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, who became a major advocate for the education of her grandson.
Bunche proved to be a brilliant student, graduating as valedictorian from Jefferson High School and excelling in athletics. He attended the University of California on scholarship, playing varsity sports and working as a janitor to pay for additional expenses.
Bunche graduated in 1927 as valedictorian of his class and a member of Phi Beta Kappa. He entered Harvard University and earned his M.A. in 1928 and his Ph.D. in governmental/international relations in 1934, thus becoming the first African American to earn a political science doctorate. In 1928 he also joined the faculty of Howard University, and subsequently helped to launch their political science department. He later did postgraduate anthropological work at institutions like the London School of Economics and the University of Cape Town.
One of Bunche’s major achievements was his efforts from 1947 to 1949 to bring peace to the region of Palestine, the site of major conflict between Arab and Israeli forces. Bunche was called upon to helm the talks on the island of Rhodes. The long negotiation process was defined by the diplomat’s willingness to meet with both sides and be meticulous, calm and patient about getting parties to sit with each other and get used to signing off on smaller matters. The Armistice Agreements were signed in 1949. Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year, becoming the first African American and person of color in the world to receive the award.
Bunche continued his service into the 1960s, orchestrating the cessation of conflict in the Congo (Zaire), Cyprus and Bahrain. Domestically, Bunche also served as part of the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for more than two decades and participated in other efforts in the civil rights movement.
After suffering from a number of ailments, including kidney and heart disease, Bunche died in New York City on December 9, 1971. Over his career he’d received more than four dozen honorary doctorates and many, many other accolades, including the U.S. Medal of Freedom from President John F. Kennedy.
Quote: “International machinery will mean something to the common man throughout the world only when it is translated into terms that he can understand: peace, bread, housing, clothing, education, good health, and above all, the right to walk with dignity on the world’s great boulevards.”