Although UCLA was never segregated by race, the young Bunche had already experienced the effects of racism. He was the valedictorian of his high school class, but he was not permitted to join the citywide honor society.
At first, he had no thought of a college education.
"I had no burning desire to go to college. As a matter of fact, I was able to make good money as a carpet-layer,” Bunche was to say. “Actually, I came to the Vermont Avenue Campus that opening day in the fall of 1923, only because of the insistence of a very wise and determined maternal grandmother, for whom I had the greatest love and respect."
But it didn’t take Bunche long to realize that he was well-suited for the academic environment.
"My zest for producing, for achieving, for seeking to excel, quickly sharpened at UCLA, as did my intellectual curiosity,” Bunche recalled. “I wanted to learn and I enjoyed learning. That I had no idea of what career I would wish to follow bothered me not in the least. I was in a new world, an exhilarating environment, and I enjoyed it immensely."
Outside the classroom he was a student leader, an avid debater, a columnist on the student newspaper, and a basketball player.
“In those college years of maturing, I came to know broader perspectives and horizons,” Bunch said. “Attitudes of confidence—in myself and in the future—and of hope, were engendered. Hopefulness has been a part of my make-up ever since.”
He would go on to earn his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Harvard, to do research with Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on the conditions of Blacks in the U.S., and to help write the charter for the United Nations.
In 1948, he literally risked his life on a United Nations peace-keeping mission. Count Folke Bernadotte, the mediator he had been assisting, was assassinated. Bunche stepped in and spent the next six months helping to develop armistice agreements that were signed by Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria.
“One must believe that man can be saved—or salvaged—from his inevitable frailties and follies, that all problems of human relations are soluble, that conflict situations, even those in the Middle East and on university campuses, however deep-seated and prolonged, can be resolved, that a world at peace is, in fact, attainable,” Bunche declared. “Otherwise one’s work, all diplomacy, the United Nations itself, become a fateful travesty and all mankind would be utterly doomed.”
In 1950 Bunche was persuaded to accept the Nobel Peace Prize; he initially refused, feeling the honor belonged not to an individual, but to the United Nations. He spoke that year at UCLA’s commencement. In 1969, he returned to UCLA for the dedication of Bunche Hall.
"UCLA is where it all began for me, where, in a sense, I began," he told the audience at the dedication. "College for me was the genesis and the catalyst."
Bunche continued to work for civil rights and world peace until illness forced his retirement from the United Nations in June 1971. He died in December of that year.
At UCLA, his memory endures. His papers are housed in the Charles E. Young Research Library. His name is borne both by Bunche Hall and by UCLA’s Ralph Bunche Center for African American Studies (www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/).
During this academic year, the campus, the city and the world are celebrating the centenary of the birth of Ralph Bunche, born in 1904.