Ralph Bunche was born in New York City and educated at the University of California at Los Angeles and at Harvard where he became the first African American to earn a Ph.D. in government and international relations. Prior to completing his education, Bunche joined the faculty at Howard University in Washington, D.C., then the nation's premier African American institution of higher learning, where he established and chaired the political science department. He also served as assistant to the university president and was active in the organization of several early civil rights organizations including the Joint Committee on National Recovery and the National Negro Congress. During this period Bunche also helped Gunnar Myrdal with his seminal study of American race relations, American Dilemma (1944).
After serving in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II, Bunche worked as a State Department advisor to the American representatives at the Dumbarton Oaks Conference and other meetings that led to the establishment of the United Nations. He served as an advisor to the 1945 San Francisco Conference and as a delegate to the first session of the UN General Assembly. In 1947 he became director of the Division of Trusteeship and secretary to the UN Special Committee on Palestine. The next year he became acting mediator, following the assassination of Count Folke Bernadotte, the committee's first UN mediator. In that capacity, Bunche mediated the negotiations that ended the first Arab-Israeli war. His success proved that the international body could contain a war and earned him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.
Bunche went on to serve as senior advisor to the first three UN Secretaries-General. He became UN under secretary-general in 1955 and directed UN peacekeeping missions in the Suez (1956), the Congo (1960) and Cyprus (1964).
Apart from his international efforts, Bunche's overriding priority was civil rights. He walked his first picket line in 1937 and for more than 20 years served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 March to Selma.
Citing ill health, Bunche resigned from the UN early in 1971. He died on December 9.
Sources: Eric Foner and John A Garraty, eds., Reader's Companion to American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991), pp.136-137; American Council of Learned Societies, The Concise Dictionary of American Biography, 5th ed. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1997), p. 162.
Recommended citation: Eleanor Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the Election of 1960: A Project of The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers, ed. by Allida Black, June Hopkins, John Sears, Christopher Alhambra, Mary Jo Binker, Christopher Brick, John S. Emrich, Eugenia Gusev, Kristen E. Gwinn, and Bryan D. Peery (Columbia, S.C.: Model Editions Partnership, 2003). Electronic version based on unpublished letters. .
For more information, visit The Eleanor Roosevelt Papers home page at https://erpapers.columbian.gwu.edu/.
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