Raised in a poor family, he studied Political Science at Harvard University thanks to a scholarship and funds collected by the black community of Los Angeles. His doctoral dissertation won a prize in 1934 for research in social science; he conducted further research in anthropology at the London School of Economics and Capetown University. Throughout his diplomatic career, Bunche maintained his relations to academic institutions.

In 1946, he moved from the Department of State to the United Nations where he was involved in working for peoples who had not attained self-government. His most important task became the diplomatic resolution of the Iraeli-Palestinian conflict. When the UN mediator, Count Folke Bernadotte, was killed in Palestine, Bunche – his previous aide – took over the post. After almost a year of continued negotiation, he managed to obtain an armistice between Israel and Arab States.

Throughout his life, Bunche was devoted to advocating for citizen rights and combating racial prejudice. His message was that racial segregation and democracy were incompatible, that Black Americans must fight for equal rights and at the same time accept responsibilities that come with freedom, and that Whites must demonstrate that “democracy is colour-blind”.