Advance Notice: Briefs

On this day in 1954: Ralph Bunche is named to key UN post

By: - August 19, 2021 4:36 am

The American flag flies outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York on July 20, 2018. | State Department photo/ Public Domain via Flickr Public Domain

On Aug. 19, 1954, Detroit-born Ralph Bunche was named United Nations undersecretary. 

Founded in 1945 after World War II to replace the League of Nations, the U.N. was designed to prevent war between countries, and to provide a platform for dialogue. Bunche, who played a key role in the creation of the organization, was the first African American to serve in the post. 

Ralph J. Bunche Elementary and Middle School in Detroit | Detroit Public Schools Community District photo

Born Aug. 7, 1904, Bunche was the grandson of slaves and baptized at Second Baptist Church. The legendary home of worship is considered Michigan’s first Black congregation, having been founded on March 5, 1836. Bunche’s family moved to Albuquerque, N.M., and Los Angeles, Calif., when he was 10 years old. He later attended University of California at Los Angeles and Harvard University. 

At the U.N., Bunche helped to negotiate a peace agreement between Arabs and Jews in 1949 and earned the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation effort. He was first African American to receive the prestigious award.

“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,” he said after receiving the award on Dec. 11, 1950. “If peace is to be secure, long-suffering and long-starved, forgotten peoples of the world, the underprivileged and the undernourished, must begin to realize without delay the promise of a new day and a new life.”

Later in life, Bunche participated in the seminal 1963 March on Washington and the historic 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery walk, civil rights efforts including the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy presented to Bunche the nation’s Medal of Freedom. 

Bunche died on Dec. 9, 1971. A school in Detroit is named in his honor. So is a residential development located on the city’s lower east side.

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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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