03 September 2020
Charles Shaw / Getty Images
Charles Shaw / Getty Images

On 23 September 1950, the diplomat Ralph Bunche, seen here addressing the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The first black Nobel laureate, Bunche was awarded the prize for his efforts in ending the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.

A valedictorian both at his high school and at the University of California, Los Angeles—where he also played varsity basketball—Bunche worked several jobs to support his education. He earned a scholarship to Harvard and, besides founding the political-science department at Howard University, rose through the ranks of the state department during the Second World War.

Bunche helped create the United Nations and was put in charge of its trusteeship department, before being asked to assist the special committee mediating a settlement in Palestine. When the chief mediator, Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated by Jewish militants on 17 September 1948, Bunche stepped into the role, concluding armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. He represented the United Nations in conflict hotspots such as Egypt, Cyprus, Kashmir and Yemen; supported decolonisation efforts throughout the world; and became undersecretary general in 1968.

Although he was sometimes criticised by—and critical of—radical black activists, Bunche served on the board of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 22 years and refused an appointment as assistant secretary of state to protest segregated housing in Washington, DC. Through his academic work and in his speeches, he debunked race science and insisted that segregation was incompatible with democracy. “What we are doing here is an all-American attack on an all-American problem,” he said at Montgomery, on 25 March 1965. “In the UN we have known from the beginning that secure foundations for peace in the world can be built only upon the principles and practices of equal rights and status for all peoples, respect and dignity for all men.”

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