Ralph Bunche, United Nations Undersecretary General, signs papers at his desk in his office at the U.N. headquarters in New York City, April 26, 1963.

A Hero of U.S. Diplomacy: Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971)

A Hero of U.S. Diplomacy: Dr. Ralph J. Bunche (1904-1971) 1024 760

The objective of any who sincerely believe in peace clearly must be to exhaust every honourable recourse in the effort to save the peace.– Dr. Ralph J. Bunche

Bunche marches with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965. Bunche was active in the struggle for civil rights and racial equality, founding the National Negro Congress and serving as a member of the Board of the NAACP for 22 years.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. links arms with other civil rights leaders as they begin the march to the state capitol in Montgomery from Selma, Ala. on March 21, 1965. The demonstrators are marching for voter registration rights for blacks. Accompanying Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (fourth from right), are on his left Ralph Bunche, undersecretary of the United Nations, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. They are wearing leis given by a Hawaiian group.

Dr. Ralph J. Bunche was a pioneering African American diplomat who shaped some of the most remarkable moments in the twentieth century. In January 2020, the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at The City University of New York generously donated several artifacts to the the National Museum of American Diplomacy that represent the distinguished diplomatic career of Dr. Bunche. Notably, the donation includes Bunche’s UN beret and armband, his personal signed copy of the 1949 Egyptian-Israeli General Armistice Agreement, and a plate commemorating the first United Nations Emergency Force, organized by Bunche in response to the 1956 Suez Crisis.

To commemorate Dr. Bunche’s remarkable life and career, the museum joined with the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute in February 2020 to honor Dr. Bunche as a Hero of U.S. Diplomacy. The commemoration included a special “Spotlight Exhibit” in the museum and a panel discussion  featuring the grandson of Dr. Bunche, Ralph Bunche, III. The panel was moderated by accomplished diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The grandson of a freed slave, Dr. Bunche spent his life engaged as a civil rights activist in the United States while working for peace in troubled regions around the world.

Bunche was valedictorian of UCLA’s class of 1927. At Harvard, he earned a master’s in political science in 1928 and a Ph.D. in government and international relations in 1934. He taught at Howard University where he founded the Political Science Department.

During World War II, Bunche served in the Office of Strategic Services before transferring to the State Department, becoming the first African American Desk Officer. He was soon promoted and played a major role in the formation of the United Nations, joining its staff in 1946. In 1948, he worked to mediate the Arab-Israeli conflict. 

In 1950, Bunche became  the first African American awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating a cease-fire and securing peace between the new state of Israel and regional Arab nations. Bunche became UN Undersecretary General for Special Political Affairs in 1955 and focused on decolonization and human rights issues. President Kennedy awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1963 for his UN work on Middle East peace. Dr. Bunche passed away in 1971, survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.

In recognition of his diplomatic contributions, the State Department renamed its library — the oldest library in the U.S. federal government — for him in 1997.