Ralph J. Bunche was born Aug. 7, 1904, in Detroit and lived there and in Albuquerque before moving to Los Angeles with his grandmother and his two sisters in 1917. They bought a house on East 37th Street; Bunche excelled at Jefferson High School and became the valedictorian of his class. While in high school, Bunche delivered papers for the Los Angeles Times and worked nights in the pressroom.
At the original UCLA campus on North Vermont Avenue, Bunche starred on the men’s basketball team and graduated summa cum laude with the highest grades in the class of 1927 and a degree in political science.
He went on to study at Harvard and teach at Howard University, where he served as chair of the political science department. After his service in World War II, Bunche joined the fledgling United Nations and, from 1947 to 1949, worked to secure peace between the new state of Israel and the Arab nations in the region.
In 1950 Bunche was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for achieving an armistice between Israel and the Arab states. He continued to support the United Nations and to write and speak on global issues until his death in 1971.
Bunche spoke out on racial inequality and civil rights throughout his life, starting during his high school years in Los Angeles. He marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Alabama and issued a pointed statement on racism (below) after King’s assassination in 1968.
Ralph Bunche remains the sole UCLA graduate to be honored with the Nobel Peace Prize. He also is the only alumnus to have a classroom building named for him on campus. When he received an honorary degree in a 1950 ceremony at the Hollywood Bowl, Bunche told the crowd, “I am a Bruin. I have always been proud of that distinction.”
To commemorate his birthday, and UCLA’s centennial year, passages were selected from Bunche’s writings and speeches. The video included presents UCLA professors affiliated with the Ralph J. Bunche Center for African American Studies on campus reading selected words.
On growing up in Los Angeles
In a letter to fourth-grade students in 1964, Bunche wrote about his upbringing as an African American in Los Angeles. “I was not snowed under with gifts and cash to spend,” he wrote. “I had to learn to get much enjoyment out of very little. Because of this, I did at times have to do without, but beyond that, I did not have to make any serious sacrifices when I was young, and I never felt deprived.”
Our grandmother took my sister and me to Los Angeles and a new life. It was there that I had my earliest experiences with racial prejudice - my mother’s advice has been a constant source of strength through all such experiences. One of the first was when in my senior year in high school, my race and not my grades had kept me out of the city-wide high school honor society. The names of the prospective honorees were read off at a meeting of the senior class [...and] since my grades were the highest in the class, I had expected to be included. When my name was omitted, I instinctively assumed it was because of my race, and so did some of my classmates and at least one of my teachers, who immediately expressed to me their indignation that my color should have been held against me.
I was humiliated and deeply wounded, and on angry impulse decided to leave school, abandon graduation and never return. But after a while I thought of that talk with my mother, subdued my emotions, decided that I could get along without the honor society, and finally found myself delivering the commencement address at graduation. I assumed that the latter was a "consolation prize" for me. Naturally, my experiences with racial prejudice have never been pleasant, but I have never let any of them trouble me very much or cause me to become embittered.
Pushing back against racism
In 1926, while he was a student at UCLA, Bunche delivered a speech to older African Americans about his view as a “young Negro” about segregated swimming pools in Los Angeles.
I want to tell you that when I think of such outrageous atrocities as this latest swimming pool incident, which has been perpetrated upon Los Angeles negroes, my blood boils. And when I see my people so foolhardy as to patronize such a place, and thus give it their sanction, my disgust is trebled. Any Los Angeles negro who would go bathing in that dirty hole with that sign—"For Colored Only," gawking down at him in insolent mockery of his Race, is either a fool or a traitor to his kind. It is true we have made a rather feeble protest against it. But why stop with that—because of a slight set-back? Must we go on passively like lambs in the fold and accept such conditions, which can only be the forerunner of greater discrimination in the future?
‘Bonds of common interest’
At the Vermont Avenue campus of UCLA, Bunche took part in oratorical competitions. In a 1926 speech he called That man may dwell in peace, his interest in international relations began to become evident.
Undeniably, the people of the world are today inextricably bound together by bonds of common interest which make imperative an effective, active international organization. Indeed, the League of Nations and its World Court are quite indispensable as initial steps in the inevitable banding together of all national entities into an international body-politic, whose interests shall hold precedence over and above those of the individual national groups...
Hatreds are superficial—based upon fear, ignorance, blind prejudice or a desire to dominate for selfish ends. They are simply mental attacks upon others, perchance calling for a physical attack or war in self-defense and retaliation. If people can, by educational processes, mutually arrive at greater understanding and sympathy, these hatreds will in large measure be dissipated. For understanding eschews dislikes, vitiates fear and gives rise to faith and trust in which lies the spirit of cooperation.
Graduating from UCLA
Bunche gave the valedictory address at his graduation ceremony in June 1927. His speech offered a further hint of the involvement in world affairs that would help define his life.
Indisputably, society is essential to civilization. Each of us must be trained as a social being. This is not so much an individual concern, as it is that of the educational systems of the world -- the "training grounds" of society. If these institutions are to fulfill their proper obligations to society, they must develop and give to the world socially valuable men -- not alone intellectuals, but men purged of those fictitious, foolish animosities which have caused the world such misery through the ages...
Here this morning, after four arduous years of "higher" education, we confront a new world. If the mission of this education be filled, there is planted in each of us those seeds from which fourth-dimensional personality will spring. We shall have become more altruistic and less selfish. We shall love more, and hate less. We shall have become more internationally-minded -- less insular-minded. We shall have succeeded in "slipping into the skins of others." We need not be less intellectual -- we need be more spiritual. We need not think less, we need only feel more. We shall not only have developed the intellect -- we shall have educated the heart...
My fellow graduates: we are youth, and have the world yet to face. The dawn of each individual career is even now breaking grey and uncertain. Our success, our happiness in the future will be determined by what we will. We are told that we have daring, vigor and resourcefulness. Then let us dare to live as men live! Let us dedicate our vigor and our resourcefulness to the cause of human fellowship! Let us not confine ourselves each to his own little sphere, but expand in heart and soul, and become true friends of man! So much we have in common with the youth of all lands - as we go, so goes the world.
The world beyond campus
Shortly after starting at Harvard, Bunche wrote to his UCLA mentor, Dean C.H. Rieber, revealing the strangeness of his first New England autumn and disclosing his new life’s calling.
Dear Dean Rieber:
The leaves are all falling here — (it’s a strange sight to me); the temperature is dropping little by little every day as the brisk north winds come sweeping in; the squirrels are scurrying about the "yard" in their last far-sighted efforts to store up provender for the winter, after which they will "dig in" — everything here seems to be done with the idea in mind of "getting ready for winter." It’s odd to me, this laying so much stress on a mere season of the year. Out there we scarcely have seasons at all. So I’m looking forward to my first winter here with a rather keen anticipation....
I have definitely decided to cast my lot in the realm of the scholarly rather than the purely legal, and from now on will bend every effort toward the attainment of the Ph.D. The conversations which I was fortunate enough to have during my trip this summer, with some of the leaders of my race, influenced me considerably in making the decision. That trip was an education in itself to me and it has revealed to me the tremendous amount of work there is for each of us to do during our short stay on earth.
An education in racial pride
In a 1954 address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Bunche again drew on his racial experiences in Los Angeles and discussed his UCLA years.
I recall most vividly high school graduation exercises. After the exercises were completed, the principal of the school came up to me, thinking to be kind. He congratulated me on my graduation. Then he said to me in a most friendly way: "We’re sorry to lose you, Ralph. You know we have never thought of you as a Negro here." This struck me immediately, but I, at that time, did not know just what to reply. I would today, but one of the reasons I would know what to reply today was because I was reared by a grandmother who always knew what to reply in such situations. She happened to be standing beside me when Mr. Fulton, the principal, said this to me. She gave Mr. Fulton an education in racial pride and pride of origin which I am sure he never forgot. She did it in the most polite but in a very firm and pointed way and when it was over we both got a very profound apology from him.
I went on then to UCLA, which is, as you know, Jackie Robinson’s school, and which has had a fine reputation on race relations. One of the reasons is because back in those early days in 1923 at UCLA there were a few men, including the Provost of the University, who had the courage to take a stand whenever a situation arose, even though it wasn’t highly popular at that time. One of them was the basketball coach. I went out for the freshman basketball team. There happened to be a freshman named Blum who had just moved into Los Angeles from New Orleans, who was also out for the team. When Julius Blum saw I was out for the team he became perturbed and went to Caddy, the coach, and said he had a personal problem. He wanted to play basketball but he could not play under the conditions that existed. Caddy asked him what the trouble was. He said: "There is a colored fellow out there and we’ve just come from New Orleans. My folks just won’t let me say I’m in the squad if I have to play with this Negro." Caddy said, "Well, I can understand that, I’m quite sympathetic to your position. Just turn in your suit."
It developed the boy wanted to play basketball more than he wanted to nurture his traditional racial attitude and so he did not turn in his suit. And then to drive the lesson home, Caddy paired him with me as guard deliberately. It happened we both made the team and had to play together the whole season. But before the semester was over, we had become fast friends. Blum himself told me what had happened on the opening day. He invited me and other Negro students at UCLA to his home, and he came to our home. Today he is one of my close friends.
‘An incurable optimist’
Bunche’s achievement of an armistice ending the shooting war between Arabs and the new state of Israel brought him fame and honors, including a ticker-tape parade in New York City. This passage was quoted in the introduction of Bunche at the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on December 10, 1950.
Like every Negro in America, I’ve been buffeted about a great deal, I’ve suffered many disillusioning experiences. Inevitably, I’ve become allergic to prejudice. On the other hand, from my earliest years I was taught the virtue of tolerance; militancy in fighting for rights - but not bitterness. And as a social scientist I’ve always cultivated a coolness of temper, an attitude of objectivity when dealing with human sensitivities and irrationalities, which has always proved invaluable - never more so than in the Palestine negotiations.
Success there was dependent upon maintaining complete objectivity. Throughout the endless weeks of negotiations I was bolstered by an unfailing sense of optimism. Somehow I knew we had to succeed. I am an incurable optimist, as a matter of fact."
Peace in our time and the United Nations
When he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Bunche titled his Nobel lecture Some reflections on peace in our time.
If today we speak of peace, we also speak of the United Nations, for in this era, peace and the United Nations have become inseparable. If the United Nations cannot ensure peace, there will be none. If war should come, it will be only because the United Nations has failed. But the United Nations need not fail. Surely, every man of reason must work and pray to the end that it will not fail. In these critical days, it is a high privilege and a most rewarding experience to be associated with the United Nations — the greatest peace effort in human history....
Unfortunately, there may yet be some in the world who have not learned that today war can settle nothing, that aggressive force can never be enough, nor will it be tolerated. If this should be so, the pitiless wrath of the organized world must fall upon those who would endanger the peace for selfish ends. For in this advanced day, there is no excuse, no justification for nations resorting to force except to repel armed attack....
Peace is no mere matter of men fighting or not fighting. Peace, to have meaning for many who have known only suffering in both peace and war, must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health and education, as well as freedom and human dignity — a steadily better life. If peace is to be secure, long-suffering and long-starved forgotten peoples of the world, the under-privileged and the under-nourished, must begin to realize without delay the promise of a new day and a new life....
There will be no security in our world, no release from agonizing tension, no genuine progress, no enduring peace, until, in Shelley’s fine words, ‘reason’s voice, loud as the voice of nature, shall have waked the nations.’
Looking on the bright side
In his 1964 letter to the fourth graders, Bunche also recounted the advice his mother gave him informed his work toward bringing peace between Israel and the Arab world.
When we were called upon by the United Nations Security Council to bring about an armistice in Palestine, it seemed impossible ever to induce the Arabs and Jews, consumed as they were by bitter emotion and hatred, to sit down together in negotiations looking toward the end of their savage warfare. But I never gave up the hope that they would do so and I never ceased trying. Eventually they did agree to negotiate. That, however, was only the beginning, for almost every day there were new and desperate crises, with one or the other delegation threatening to abandon the negotiations. There were personal insults, such as refusals to shake hands, invectives were hurled and even pencils were thrown across the negotiating table. No matter what happened, I kept thinking to myself that we simply had to get them to agree; the stakes were too high to even think of the possibility of failure. In time, they did agree, and the armistice agreements came into effect...
The habit of always looking on the bright side of things may make one appear naive now and then, but in my experience it is the best antidote for worry and ulcers. I am often called an optimist. No doubt I am; but if so, it is by training rather than by nature - my mother’s training.
I am convinced that nothing is ever finally lost until faith and hope and dreams are abandoned, and then everything is lost. This, I feel, is what my mother meant.
Racial prejudice in America
Bunche concluded his 1954 address to the NAACP convention with his thoughts on ‘the tremendous costs to the nation’ of American racism.
The existence of racial prejudice, the practice of racial or religious bigotry in our midst today, should be the active concern of every American who believes in our democratic way of life. Such attitudes and practices subvert the foundation principles of our society. They are more costly and more dangerous today than ever before in our history. Indeed, it is impossible to calculate the tremendous costs to the nation of such attitudes and their shameful manifestations. They are a seriously divisive influence amongst our people. They create resentment, unrest and disturbances in our communities. They deprive us of our maximum national unity at a time when our way of life and all that we stand for is gravely threatened from without. They prevent us from using a substantial part of our manpower effectively, even though we are seriously short of manpower, to meet the challenge confronting us from an external world....
Our nation is a union of peoples more diversified in origin than any society in history. No American should ever forget that from our earliest beginnings we have been diversified, racially and culturally. We have set out on a great experiment — the greatest, I believe, in the history of human society — an experiment to demonstrate that peoples of all races, colors, creeds and cultures can live and work and play together and be welded into a firm unity by the sheer force of a great and compelling ideal — the democratic way of life. We have made remarkable progress and have had remarkable success with that experiment. This is, in fact, the true source of our unparalleled national growth and strength. I believe further that differences of race, religion and culture do enrich our society. Surely there is nothing so inspired or inspiring as men of all races and religions working together as free men in a common cause and with common interests, ideals and objections.
‘The struggle for human dignity’
Bunche wrote to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on May 11, 1963, praising King and other civil rights leaders for confronting racism in Birmingham, Alabama.
My heartiest congratulations go to you, the Rev. Fred L. Shuttlesworth and the Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy and your associates, for your great courage and wisdom in leading so successfully the recent Birmingham struggle for human dignity. Mr. Burke Marshall, I take it, is also due special commendation. But I know you will agree that we all owe greatest gratitude to the Negro citizens of Birmingham for their heroic determination and their remarkable self-discipline in the face of brutal provocation deliberately created by that blatant hate-monger, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, with his dogs, firehose, assaults on women, arrests of children, and gratuitous insults to all Negro Americans.
Assassination of Martin Luther King
The day after King was murdered in Memphis on April 4, 1968, Bunche issued a personal statement on the tragedy and his hope for ‘a decisive attack upon racism’ in response.
The world has lost one of its most earnest, respected and commanding voices in the allied causes of peace, freedom and the dignity of man. For this nation, his loss is a national disaster, a profound American tragedy. The shot that took Dr. King’s life, fired apparently by a white man infected with racism, has been heard around the world in its barbarism and infamy, to the shame and discredit of the United States.
The world’s leading contemporary exponent of non-violence is now gone, all too ironically by an act of savage violence. Advocates of violence in the country undoubtedly will seek to exploit this sorrowful fact. On the other hand, the tremendous shock of this dastardly blow against decency should impress upon every American of goodwill, who has the interest of the country at heart, the imperative need for an effort of unparalleled determination, massiveness and urgency to convert the American ideal of equality into reality; to make the catchword of integration an actual way of life for all citizens, black and white, in our society. Dr. King persevered in this dream for America in the face of overwhelming adversity and continuous personal danger. His vision was the truest essence of the American dream. In this regard, no man had greater faith in this nation than he. For the sake of the future of this country, that dream must soon come true, and in full.
I feel impelled to mention my sense of deep personal loss in this tragedy for I have cherished my friendship with Martin Luther King over many years and shall always retain moving memories of my association with him, shoulder to shoulder, in some of his great and most dramatic efforts, particularly in the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the March on Washington and the Selma-Montgomery March. I grieve for his charming and talented widow, Coretta, who shares her late husband’s dedication and integrity, and for their four fine children ....
It occurs to me that if the sentiment behind this massive mourning for Dr. King could be quietly converted into community and national resolve to launch a decisive attack upon racism in this country in all of its aspects, and particularly in its ghetto manifestations, the back of the American racial problem could be broken.
UCLA and peace
On May 23, 1969, Bunche spoke a final time at UCLA on the occasion of the campus social sciences building being renamed Bunche Hall. It remains the only teaching building at UCLA named in honor of a graduate.
UCLA is where it all began for me, where in a sense I began. College for me was the genesis and the catalyst....
Peace, like war, can usually be won only by bold and courageous initiatives and by taking some deliberate, calculated risks.