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Black History Month: Ralph Bunche

In celebration of Black History Month, War Studies student Alisha Durgapal explores the life and legacy of Ralph Bunche, a civil rights activist, UN official and the first African American Nobel Peace Prize winner.

“May there be freedom, equality and brotherhood among all men. May there be morality in the relations among nations. May there be, in our time, at long last, a world at peace in which we, the people, may for once begin to make full use of the great good that is in us.”

These are the words of Ralph Bunche on acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize for his work as a United Nations mediator in the Palestine conflict. Describing himself as a "Incurable optimist", Bunche made important contributions to the US civil rights movements, academia and peacekeeping efforts in the Middle East, Africa and the Mediterranean.

His grandmother, who was born into slavery, was a significant influence on Bunche growing up and fostered his “determination to succeed”. Considered a young radical intellectual, he was an active member of the US civil rights movement and voiced his criticism of America’s social systems. He established the National Negro Congress in 1936, which sought to bring together African American leaders in many fields to push for labor and civil rights. Later, he served as the chief research associate to Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal's landmark study of racial dynamics in the US, An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. It sold over 100,000 copies and was enormously influential in how racial issues were viewed in the United States, being cited in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case.

Switching his focus from the US to the international community, Bunche joined the UN Secretariat, where he developed the foundations and principles under which many territories gained nationhood. As advisor to the United States delegation at the 1945 San Francisco Conference, he helped draft both Chapters XI and XII of the United Nations Charter. He served as U.N. Secretariat in 1946 as director of the Trusteeship division, thus giving him responsibility for overseeing the administration of the U.N. Trust Territories as they progressed towards self-government and independence.

From June 1947 to August 1949, Bunche worked on the most important assignment of his career – the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. After eleven months of virtually ceaseless negotiating, Bunche obtained signatures on armistice agreements between Israel and the Arab States. This achievement made him the first African American to win a Nobel Peace Prize and cemented his legacy as one of the most outstanding and influential figures of the 20th century.

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