Dr. Ralph Johnson Bunche contributed to the African American freedom struggle and peacekeeping efforts worldwide through his involvement with the United Nations (UN) and several civil rights organizations. Bunche had great admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., writing in 1956, “You and our fellow Negro citizens of Montgomery are doing heroic work in the vineyards of democracy. Your patient determination, your wisdom and quiet courage are constituting an inspiring chapter in the history of human dignity” (Papers 3:134).
Bunche was born 7 August 1904 in Detroit, Michigan, to Fred Bunch and Olive Agnes Johnson. After being orphaned at the age of 13, Bunche moved to Los Angeles where he added an “e” to his last name and was raised by his maternal grandmother, Lucy Taylor Johnson, who fostered his determination to succeed.
In 1927 Bunche graduated summa cum laude from the University of California at Los Angeles with a BA in international relations. The following year, he received an MA in government from Harvard University and helped establish the Political Science Department at Howard University in Washington, D.C. In 1929 Bunche returned to Harvard and received his PhD in government and international relations in 1934.
In 1936 Bunche helped establish the National Negro Congress, which sought to bring together African American leaders in many fields to push for labor and civil rights. Beginning in 1938, Bunche assisted Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal in writing An American Dilemma (1944), a study of black and white race relations in the United States.
Bunche joined the UN Secretariat in 1947, where he developed the guidelines under which many territories gained nationhood. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for his work as head of a UN peace-seeking Palestine commission that negotiated an armistice between the new state of Israel and Arab nations. Bunche was the first person of color to receive the prize. In 1955 Bunche became UN Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs. As undersecretary, Bunche was the highest ranking American at the UN at the time. In 1963 President John F. Kennedy awarded Bunche the Medal of Freedom, the U.S. government’s highest civilian award.
Despite illnesses, Bunche demonstrated with King at the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March. He was an active member on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he served from 1949 until his death.
Although they had similar interests, Bunche did not always agree with King. In 1967 he joined many civil rights supporters in their criticism of King’s public statements against the Vietnam War. Bunche asserted that King’s public position on the war would alienate supporters of the civil rights movement. In an interview, Bunche said: “Right now, I am convinced, he is making a very serious tactical error which will do much harm to the civil rights struggle. I refer to the merging in his recent speeches of the civil rights movement and the crusade against United States involvement in Vietnam.” Responding to his critics, King maintained that “no one can pretend that the existence of the war is not profoundly affecting the destiny of civil rights progress” (Sibley, “Bunche Disputes”). In June 1971 Bunche retired from his United Nations post due to serious illness. He died on 9 December 1971 at the age of 67.