Ralph Bunche: first African-American Nobel Peace Prize winner


Ralph Johnson Bunche was the first African-American winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Ralph Bunche (1904-1971) lost both parents due to ill health by the time he was 12 years old. Born in Detroit, Michigan, his family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when he was ten years old in the hope that the dry climate would improve the health of his parents Fred and Olive. It did not. After their deaths, his grandmorther raised Ralph and his two sisters in Los Angeles. To help the family finances, he sold newspapers and did odd-jobs.

After he won a school prize in history and another in English, and was a debater and all-round athlete, he decided to go to university. He supported himself through an athletic scholarship at the University of California in Los Angeles. He graduated in 1927, summa cum laude, valedictorian of his class, with a major in international relations.

Harvard University granted him a scholarship and the African-American community of Los Angeles raised $1,000 which enabled Bunche to begin graduate studies in political science. He completed his master’s degree in 1928 and for the next six years alternated between teaching at Howard University and working toward his doctorate degree at Harvard.

The Rosenwald Fellowship, which he held in 1932-1933, enabled him to conduct research in Africa for a dissertation comparing French rule in Togoland and Dahomey. He completed his dissertation in 1934 with such distinction that he was awarded the Toppan Prize for outstanding research in social studies. From 1936 to 1938, on a Social Science Research Council fellowship, he undertook postdoctoral research in anthropology at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and Capetown University in South Africa.

Bunche had always been active in the civil rights movement. Although he criticized both America’s social system and the established African-American organizations, he was considered to hold moderate political views.

As co-director of the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore College in 1936, he wrote A World View of Race, published in 1936. He was also a member of the Roosevelt’s administration’s ‘Black Cabinet’ which was the advisory committee on minority issues.

Bunche declined President Truman’s offer of the position of assistant secretary of state because of the segregated housing conditions in Washington, D.C. Instead, he helped to lead Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights march in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. He also supported the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League.

In speeches, Bunche’s messages were:

  • Racial prejudice is an unreasoned phenomenon without scientific basis in biology or anthropology;
  • Segregation and democracy are incompatible;
  • Blacks should maintain the struggle for equal rights while accepting the responsibilities that come with freedom; and
  • Whites must demonstrate that ‘democracy is color-blind’.

However, Ralph Bunche is most remembered for his service to the United States government and to the United Nations. An adviser to the Department of State and the military on Africa and colonial areas of strategic military importance during World War II, Bunche moved from his first position as an analyst in the Office of Strategic Services to acting chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs in the State Department.

In 1946 UN secretary-general Trygve Lie placed Bunche in charge of the Department of Trusteeship of the UN to handle problems of the world’s peoples who had not yet attained self-government.

From 1947-1949 Bunche worked on the most important assignment of his career: the confrontation between Arabs and Jews in Palestine. He was first appointed as assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine, then as principal secretary of the UN Palestine Commission, which was charged with carrying out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly. In early 1948 when this plan was dropped, the UN appointed Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator and Ralph Bunche as his chief aide. Four months later, on 17 September 1948, Bernadotte was assassinated. Bunche was named acting UN mediator on Palestine. After eleven months of virtually ceaseless negotiating, Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States.

Bunche returned to America to a hero’s welcome. New York gave him a ticker tape parade up Broadway and Los Angeles declared a ‘Ralph Bunche Day.’ He was given over thirty honorary degrees in the next three years, and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Bunche continued to work for the United Nations taking on many special assignments. Replying to an interviewer on the UN’s intervention in international crises, Bunche remarked that ‘the United Nations has had the courage that the League of Nations lacked – to step in and tackle the buzz saw’.

Ralph Bunche died on 9 December 1971. This year celebrates the 45th year since his death.


From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1926-1950, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972


Photographs: Ralph Bunche from nobelprize.org (top); and publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com

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