Ralph Bunche Biography

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(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Bunche played a major role in making Americans conscious of the contradictions between their racial policies and their democratic aspirations. He helped bring better understanding between nations, participating in the drafting of the United Nations Charter, and through diplomatic negotiations helped to maintain peace in the Middle East and Africa, winning the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts.

Early Life

Ralph Johnson Bunche was born in Detroit, Michigan, on August 7, 1904. His father, Fred Bunche, was a barber. His mother, Olive Agnes Johnson Bunche, named him for his grandfather, Ralph Johnson, who was born a slave. The family moved frequently during Ralph’s early life, and he remembered that in each community a different ethnic group was singled out for contempt: the Italians in Detroit; the blacks in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he spent a winter when he was six; the Mexicans in New Mexico, where the family moved because of his mother’s poor health; and the Chinese and the Japanese in California, where he and his younger sister, Grace, lived with their grandmother after their mother’s death. These early memories of the different faces of prejudice clearly influenced his later interests and outlook on life.

In the fall of 1916, Bunche’s father left home, never to be heard from again. The following February, his mother, who suffered from rheumatic fever, died. His maternal grandmother, Lucy Johnson, kept the family together, but within a few months, his favorite uncle, who suffered from tuberculosis, committed suicide. In less than a year, Bunche had lost three of the most significant adults in his life. His grandmother, widowed early in life, had reared her children alone and now became his anchor. A light-skinned woman who could have passed for white, she was a dominant influence in her family. Her husband, Ralph’s grandfather, had been a schoolteacher, and education was a value she continued to uphold for her grandchildren.

Even as a child, Bunche was accustomed to hard work. By the age of seven he was selling newspapers, and before his mother died he worked in a bakery after school until nearly midnight every day. In Los Angeles, where he went to live with his grandmother, he was graduated as valedictorian from Jefferson High School. He attended the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) on an athletic scholarship, where he was also a teaching assistant in the political science department, and was graduated magna cum laude in 1927. He received an M.A. degree from Harvard in 1928 and in June, 1930, married Ruth Ethel Harris, one of his students, with whom he had three children: two daughters, Jean and Jane, and a son, Ralph.

A handsome man of medium height and build, Bunche was destined to attract favorable attention for his accomplishments and pleasing personality. On a Rosenwald field fellowship, he toured Europe, England, and North and West Africa in 1931-1932 and in 1934 received a Ph.D. from Harvard, winning the Tappen Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in the social sciences for that year. His dissertation was a study of colonial administration in French West Africa; the transition of the former African colonies to independent statehood was one of his abiding concerns through the remainder of his life. His Harvard years were followed by postdoctoral work in anthropology and colonial policy at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Capetown, South Africa, in 1936-1937. A Social Science Research Council postdoctoral fellowship allowed him to visit Europe, South and East Africa, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies between 1936 and 1938.

During these years, Bunche was also teaching. He began teaching political science at Howard University in 1928 and served as chairman of the department from 1929 to 1950, when he left Howard to teach government at Harvard. He codirected the Institute of Race Relations at Swarthmore in 1936 while on leave from Howard. By his early thirties, his brilliance, hard work, and breadth of interests made him one of the most highly educated, well-informed men in the United States.

Life’s Work

In 1939, Bunche became a member of the staff of the Carnegie Corporation Survey of the Negro in America. This project was headed by a Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, and resulted in a two-volume work, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy (1944). Bunche was one of a half dozen staff men who helped Myrdal with this massive project, based primarily on hundreds of interviews and personal observations of the participating scholars. He toured the South by automobile in 1939 with Myrdal, and most of the interviews were conducted by his assistants in 1939 and 1940.

Bunche’s part of the study dealt mainly with black organizational life, leadership, and ideology. He emphasized the extent to which disfranchisement of black voters had corrupted politics in the South, cutting off reform possibilities at the grass roots. He castigated the use of the poll tax and the white primary and pointed out the lack of secrecy in voting, which made political independence unlikely for poor people of either race in the South. Bunche emphasized the glaring inconsistencies between democracy and discrimination, stating,

If democracy is to survive the severe trials and buffetings to which it is being subjected in the modern world, it will do so only because it can demonstrate that it is a practical, living philosophy under which all people can live the good life most abundantly. It must prove itself in practice or be discredited as a theory.

His work on race relations in the United States was followed by work for the United States government, in which he dealt with race relations on a global scale. In 1941, he was asked to work as a senior social science analyst on Africa and the Far East areas of the British Empire section of the Office of Strategic Services. He became chief of the African section in 1943 and then became a territorial specialist in the Division of Territorial Studies of the United States State Department in 1944-1945. In 1945, he was the first black division head in the State Department. He also helped draft the United Nations Charter.

Bunche was made director of the Division of Trusteeship of the United Nations from 1946 to 1948, then principal director of the Department of Trusteeship from 1948 to 1954. In 1947, he became special assistant to representatives of the secretary general of the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine. Tensions were very high in Jerusalem as the question of the partition of Palestine was being considered. The Arab high command forbade Arabs to testify before the special United Nations commission, so Bunche and others met with them secretly in Syria and Lebanon. After meeting separately with both sides, Bunche composed both the majority and minority reports to the satisfaction of both parties. His ability to grasp the problems involved and his empathy for the opposing factions made him a unique diplomat, trusted and acceptable to both Jews and Arabs.

When the Arabs declared war on Israel in 1948, Bunche was sent as the chief representative of the secretary general of the United Nations to help mediate the dispute, along with Count Folke Bernadotte, the head of the Swedish Red Cross. Bernadotte was shot and killed just before the two were to leave the Middle East to meet in Paris, and Bunche became the acting mediator through 1948 and 1949, finally achieving a peaceful settlement. In 1950, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his peacemaking success in the Middle East. In 1957 he again successfully negotiated a peaceful settlement between Egypt and Israel.

In 1960, Bunche was a special representative of the secretary general of the United Nations in peacemaking efforts in the Congo. Dag Hammarskjöld had planned to take Bunche back to the Congo with him on the last trip he made, which ended in a fatal plane crash, but had decided against it at the last minute. The new secretary general of the United Nations, U Thant, appointed Bunche deputy secretary general, making him the highest-ranking American to serve under three secretary generals of the United Nations. He resolved the dispute between Prime Minister Cyrille Adoula of the Congo Republic and President Moise-Kapenda Tshombe of the Katanga province. He was sent to Yemen in 1963 to help contain another civil war. In 1964, he was sent to Cyprus to mediate Greek-Turkish hostilities, and, partially as a result of his efforts, peace was preserved there for another ten years until the Turks invaded in 1974.

In 1965, Bunche turned his attention once again to racial problems at home. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, he had been much involved in efforts to improve the racial situation in the United States. He served on the national executive board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), helped organize a National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, helped organize the National Negro Congress in 1935, and served as a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet” of advisers. When he joined the Security Council of the United Nations, he had taken an oath, as an international civil servant, to refrain from activity in domestic problems. Nevertheless, he joined the march led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama, in 1965 and addressed the crowd of thirty-five thousand Americans gathered there, remarking that his wife’s father had made civil rights speeches in that same city at the turn of the century and apologizing to the crowd for having to speak from the capitol steps, where Dixie’s flag still waved.

By that time, his health was beginning to fail. In 1951, he discovered that he suffered from diabetes. When he returned home from Selma, he had hepatitis, but he continued to work until he developed heart failure in 1970. He recovered from a heart attack and pneumonia, only to suffer a fall at home and die the following year on December 9, 1971. He was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York, next to his daughter Jane, who had preceded him in death.

During his lifetime, he received thirty-nine honorary degrees, the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963, and other honors too numerous to mention. He remained a modest man, finding more pleasure in work than in fame and firm in his commitment to build a more truly democratic society.


Ralph Bunche presents both a model and a challenge to all Americans. Facing poverty, discrimination, and a family broken through death in his early life, he became one of the most highly educated men in the United States. He used that education to serve his people and his nation, to sound the alarm about the state of democracy in America, forcing others to deal with the contradiction between racial discrimination and democracy. He demonstrated the potential for peace in the world when intelligence and perseverance are applied to achieve it. Through his work with the United Nations, he helped to contain several disputes, any one of which could have escalated into a third world war.


Bunche, Ralph J. The Political Status of the Negro in the Age of FDR. Edited by Dewey W. Grantham. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973. Consists of the notes Bunche made for the Carnegie-Myrdal report. Gives a good sketch of Bunche’s life and career.

Cornell, Jean Gay. Ralph Bunche: Champion of Peace. Champaign, Ill.: Garrard Publishing Co., 1976. One of a series, Americans All Biographies, written especially for young people. Balanced but brief.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of American Negroes. 3d ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1967. An overview of American black history with scattered references to Bunche, placing him in the context of major events.

Franklin, John Hope, and August Meier, eds. Black Leaders of the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982. Contains a brief sketch of Bunche.

Haskins, James. Ralph Bunche: A Most Reluctant Hero. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974. Small, compact biography written by a young freelance black scholar. Includes information on Los Angeles black community support for Bunche in his youth.

Johnson, Ann Donegan. The Value of Responsibility: The Story of Ralph Bunche. San Diego, Calif.: Value Communications, 1978. A good biography for young children. Emphasis is on character building.

Keppel, Ben. The Work of Democracy: Ralph Bunche, Kenneth B. Clark, Lorraine Hansberry, and the Cultural Politics of Race. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995. Keppel examines the way that mainstream media and even academe have appropriated the lives of these icons of the Civil Rights movement in order to soften their antiracist positions, turning Bunche, for example, into a representative of the American Dream while ignoring his stand against McCarthyism.

Kugelmass, Joseph Alvin. Ralph J. Bunche: Fighter for Peace. New York: Julian Messner, 1952. The first biography of Bunche, written for older children and teenagers. Well-balanced coverage of his life.

Mann, Peggy. Ralph Bunche: UN Peacemaker. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1975. Best, most accurate biography available. The Bunche family, Roy Wilkins, and United Nations coworkers assisted the author. Major emphasis is on Bunche’s work at the United Nations.

Urquhart, Brian. Ralph Bunche: An American Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993. Written by Bunche’s former assistant, this substantive biography focuses primarily on Bunche’s illustrious career. Illustrated with maps and photos, and indexed.