The son of a barber, Ralph Bunche was born in Detroit in 1904. His family moved to New Mexico when Bunche was 10 in the hopes that his parents' ill health would improve there. However, both parents died two years later. Bunche then lived with his grandmother in Los Angeles, where he worked as a houseboy for a movie actor.
Bunche was the valedictorian of his graduating class and went on to attend the University of California at Los Angeles on an athletic scholarship and supported himself by working as a janitor. He graduated summa cum laude in 1927.
Next, he earned a doctorate in political science from Harvard University, and he taught at Howard University and later at Harvard. He worked with Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights movement and was an adviser to the U.S. State Department.
Bunche took part in planning for the United Nations and was an adviser to the U.S. delegation for the "Charter Conference" in 1945, when the governing document was drafted. Along with Eleanor Roosevelt, Bunche was considered instrumental in the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Bunche served as principal secretary of the United Nations Palestine Commission from 1947 to 1949, where he negotiated a settlement between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For his efforts in the Middle East and for the 1949 Armistice Agreements, Bunche won the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize. Continuing he work with the UN, Bunche was appointed as undersecretary-general in 1968. He died in 1971 at age 68.