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Ralph Bunche: ‘Mr. U.N.’


Dr. Ralphe J. Bunche (1903-1971) was one of the great world statesmen of the 20th century and left an indelible mark of courage and confidence on millions of African Americans who came of age during the Civil Rights Movement.

Bunche, a graduate of Jefferson High School and UCLA, within international diplomacy was affectionately known as “Mr. U.N.” and throughout the 1940s, 50s and 60s was widely recognized as the leading American expert on Africa and colonial affairs as a determined advocate of decolonization. His pioneering work at the United Nations, during its first two decades, was crucial to the self-determination struggles and political independence of close to a billion people of color around the world.

Bunche, a Detroit native, in 1933 was among 33 young Black intellectuals who gathered at the New York estate of NAACP President Joel Spingarn to discuss problems of racial discrimination in the midst of the Great Depression. Bunche was noted for his criticism of an “older generation of ‘race men’ who were ignoring the needs of the Black masses.” During the 1930s, Bunche played a primary role in organizing two Howard University conferences aimed at affecting public policy toward African Americans (1935) and for Africans in 1936.

In 1942 as war raged in Europe, Africa and in the Far East and world leaders pondered the fate of a post-war world, Bunche was selected as the American representative to the Institute of Pacific Relations and called for “…unanimous and human recognition of the basic right of [people] a decent and dignified existence, a right they never realized.” The conference helped to launch Bunche on his career in decolonization and [nationstate] trustee matters. Three years later Bunche was one of the chief advisors to the U.S. delegation to the San Francisco Conference that drafted the Charter of the United Nations. There he worked closely with U.S. delegate Harold Stassen in drafting and redrafting of the United Nations Charter dealing with the future of the colonial world.

In 1949, Bunche’s successful negotiation of four armistice agreements helped to end the first Arab-Israeli war, thereby proving that the United Nations could fulfill its peacekeeping mandate. This was the first major challenge faced by the U.N. Bunche believed passionately that conflicts could be resolved through negotiation, without resort to the use of military force. As secretary of the Palestine Commission, Bunch effectively divided Jerusalem into one part Jewish and one part Muslim. Bunche worked to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts in such varied places as Palestine, Yemen, Kashmir, Cyprus, Suez, the Congo and Bahrain. In many cases, his negotiations prevented the outbreak of hostilities, particularly later in life when U.N. Secretary General U. Thant asked him to preside over negotiations between Iran, the British and Bahrain. The dispute involved Bahrain’s demand for independence from Great Britain and control of its natural resources. Bunch negotiated a settlement guaranteeing Bahrain’s independence to the satisfaction of all involved.

Bunche in 1950 became the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict. Contending for the award were former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, President Harry S. Truman, Dr. Albert Schweitzer and Gen. George C. Marshall. At his acceptance speech, Bunch gave a nod to decolonization, world peace and human rights: “The United Nations exists not merely to preserve the peace but also to make change—even radical change—possible without violent upheaval. The United Nations has no vested interests in the status quo. It seeks a more secure world, a better world, a world of progress for all peoples. In the dynamic world society which is the objective of the United Nations, all peoples must have equality and equal rights.”