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December 16, 1971
Guest post by John Loll, History MA student at Arizona State University.
Political scholar and United Nations diplomat Dr. Ralph J. Bunche died on December 9, 1971, almost exactly twenty-one years after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on December 10, 1950. This Los Angeles Sentinel obituary celebrates Dr. Bunche’s life and many achievements, including earning Nobel recognition for successfully negotiating a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt in 1948.
Ralph Bunche was orphaned as a teenager and struggled economically during his high school years. A brilliant student and scholar, he earned a PhD in international relations from Harvard in 1934, authored studies about segregation and Negro leadership in America, and become a leading expert on African decolonization. At times a target of racial discrimination himself, Dr. Bunche supported the civil rights movement and served for twenty-two years on the NAACP Board of Directors. Roy Wilkins, NAACP’s executive director, wrote the following tribute in December 1971:
Ralph J. Bunche was truly concerned with mankind, no matter what its location on the earth, its nationality or color. He did not forget his domestic racial difficulties or his unhappy experiences with them (how could he?), but he sensed early and knew later that war and hunger and hatred were the enemies of man. ... His practiced skills, his wondrous talents, his dedications and his hatred of the waste of war—whether between nations or races—were at the disposal of those who sought peace.160
Dr. Bunche received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from the Kennedy/Johnson administration in December 1963 and was respected by Republicans and Democrats alike. But Dr. Bunche was politically independent and was critical of blind loyalty to any party. While a professor at Howard University in 1939, he was invited to prepare a work plan for the Republican Program Committee (a group formed to review the policies of FDR’s New Deal) to help the GOP reach black voters. His independent report was an economic and political blueprint for black advancement that recommended civil rights and antilynching legislation, health care enhancements, and programs to accelerate African American integration into the workforce. Unfortunately, the RPC never published Dr. Bunche’s report, and his ideas were considered too revolutionary and impractical for adoption into the 1940 national Republican platform.161
Dr. Bunche's primary focus was world diplomacy: working on the formation of the United Nations in 1945, overseeing multiple UN peacekeeping operations, and mediating international conflicts. He became the eleventh American to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, and he was the first black person of any nationality to be so honored. Black press coverage of the Nobel ceremonies in Oslo applauded Dr. Bunche’s milestone,162 but Dr. Bunche did not want race to be the center point of his legacy: “I am weary of reading that Ralph Bunche is the first Negro to do one thing or another. It is easy to be the first Negro to do something. It would be more worthwhile to be the first American to do something. That will be a day of maturity for American democracy.”163
Photographs and additional content about Dr. Ralph J. Bunche can be found on the interactive companion website for the 2001 PBS documentary Ralph Bunche: An American Odyssey. (This link leads to a timeline of Dr. Bunche's major life events.)164 The Nobel Foundation’s website has biographical information about Dr. Bunche, as well as Dr. Bunche’s Nobel Lecture delivered in Oslo on December 11, 1950 (including a recorded excerpt of his speech).165