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Ralph Bunche, Nobel Peace Prize

  • By Dave Greenwald
  • Published Jun 19, 2000 8:00 AM

"If you want to get an idea across," said Ralph Bunche, "wrap it up in a person."

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Such was the essence of the man; he conveyed ideas that influenced history. After serving in the U.S. War Department and State Department during World War II, Bunche was active in the preliminary planning of the United Nations. He joined the permanent U.N. Secretariat in New York in 1947. The next year he was unexpectedly thrust into the role of brokering a truce between warring Arabs and Jews in the Middle East when the chief mediator was assassinated. For his success in negotiating a peaceful settlement, Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950.

Bunche was born in 1907 in Detroit, Mich. After receiving his degree from UCLA, he earned graduate degrees in government and international relations at Harvard. But it was to UCLA — a school to which he initially was reluctant to apply but did so at the insistence of his grandmother — that Bunche would ascribe much of his future success.

"UCLA is where it all began for me, where, in a sense, I began," he said during the dedication of Bunche Hall in 1969. "College for me was the genesis and the catalyst."

He joined the faculty of Howard University, where he established the department of political science. He later collaborated with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on a monumental study of race relations in the U.S., which was published in 1944 as An American Dilemma.

At the U.N., Bunche became Under-Secretary-General in 1955, undertaking several peacekeeping missions around the world. He also became active in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement and, though his health was beginning to decline, participated in civil rights marches in the South.

Illness forced his retirement in 1971 — the U.N.'s highest-ranking American and one of the most universally admired citizens of the world. He died in December 1971.