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Another Voice

Ralph Bunche made history as a peace negotiator

By William Lambers

As we celebrate Black History Month, let's remember a hero, peacemaker, teacher and humanitarian: Ralph Bunche. We need his inspiration today with so much conflict in the world.

Ralph Bunche was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 1950. He was also a great billiards player. Those two facts are connected.

Bunche was a political science professor at Howard University before getting involved with the new United Nations. As war raged in Palestine between Israel and the Arab states in 1948, the UN was called in to resolve the conflict. Bunche was named assistant to Sweden's Folke Bernadotte, the lead UN mediator.

Ending the Middle East war was urgent as the casualties mounted. There was also the crisis of starving refugees. A September 1948 report prepared by Bunche and Bernadotte stated, "As a result of the conflict in Palestine there are approximately 360,000 Arab refugees and 7,000 Jewish refugees requiring aid ... large numbers of these are infants, children, pregnant women and nursing mothers. Their condition is one of destitution and they are vulnerable groups in the medical and social sense."

Their report grimly stated the urgency of humanitarian aid and peace "the choice is between saving the lives of many thousands of people or permitting them to die."

Tragedy struck after that report as Bernadotte was assassinated by a paramilitary group. Bunche, just by chance, was not with Bernadotte or his life would have been lost too.

Bunche now became the lead mediator for the United Nations to end the fighting. This would be no easy task getting Israel to sit down with Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states.

As negotiations struggled, Bunche was persistent in keeping the warring sides together to talk peace. Bunche even devised little ways to lessen tension when gridlock struck. He would take breaks and play billiards with the diplomats from Israel and the Arab countries. These billiard matches helped regain peace momentum.

Through hard negotiations Bunche was able to end the war in 1949 with four armistice agreements between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Lives were saved.

It is through this achievement that Bunche won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. In his Nobel lecture Bunche thanked the whole team of UN diplomats, including his predecessor. Bunche called them a “devoted United Nations peace army in Palestine.”

Bunche’s diplomatic achievements continued as he helped build UN peacekeeping efforts after the Suez crisis of 1956.

Bunche believed the basics of food, health, shelter and education are critical to peace. He said in his Nobel lecture that peace "must be translated into bread or rice, shelter, health, and education, as well as freedom and human dignity – a steadily better life.”

William Lambers is an author and historian whose books include "The Road to Peace."

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