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Nobel Prizewinner Bunche Remembered

Ceremony at Jefferson High, the peacemaker's alma mater, honors the statesman and diplomat who helped write the U.N. charter.

August 08, 2003|Olga R. Rodriguez | Times Staff Writer

Hundreds of students at South Los Angeles' Jefferson High School celebrated the legacy of former school valedictorian Ralph J. Bunche on Thursday, the grandson of a former slave who became the first black American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

At the centenary commemoration of his birth, Bunche was remembered as a resolute man who, despite humble beginnings, became an international peacemaker best known for negotiating and drafting the 1949 Israeli-Arab armistice.

Bunche moved to South Los Angeles at age 12 to live with his grandmother after his parents died. After graduating from Jefferson High in 1922, he attended UCLA, where he was a basketball and track star.

"Everyone knows about his life after the UCLA years," Bunche's grandnephew, Kenneth Robinson, said. "Not a lot is known about his developing life in this community. That aspect has been overlooked, and with this event is finally being showcased."

As part of the celebration, co-sponsored by Jefferson High School, UCLA and Dunbar Economic Development Corp., which owns Bunche's boyhood home, a group of students received recognition at the high school's packed auditorium for completing a one-year conflict resolution and civic responsibility program.

The Ralph J. Bunche Youth Leadership Academy, sponsored by Dunbar and funded by the Fannie Mae Foundation, trained 24 students from the Vernon/Central Avenue community where Bunche grew up, on how to effect social change in their neighborhoods, Dunbar Executive Director Reginald Chapple said.

"We learned we can make this community better," said Genessa Martin, 18, who completed the program and will attend UC Santa Barbara. "He came from here and he believed everyone could succeed. He proved everyone can reach their goals."

In 1927, Bunche graduated from UCLA with a degree in political science and was the university's first black valedictorian. He earned a doctorate at Harvard University and taught at Howard University, becoming chairman of the political science department.

His diplomatic career began in 1945, when he helped write the United Nations charter. He would become the lead negotiator for a peace truce between the new state of Israel and its Arab enemies after his boss, the Swedish diplomat and mediator Count Folke Bernadotte, was assassinated by a Jewish terrorist group.

In 1950, he became a Nobel laureate.

Bunche also was a civil rights activist, joining Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965 in a 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala.

He died in 1971 at age 67.

UCLA plans to commemorate his legacy during the next year with a variety of events that include a library display of the Ralph J. Bunche papers and a conference on his impact on the decolonization of Africa.

The U.N. honored Bunche's 100th birthday by unveiling three stamps with his image, and in New York and Washington, D.C., Thursday was declared Ralph J. Bunche Day.

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