In recent years Bunche's prominence as a world-stage diplomat and mid-century role model has faded. He died in 1971 at age 67.
Dr. Charles Blockson, curator of Temple University's Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, recalled how King mentioned Bunche when accepting his own peace prize in 1964. Bunche, he said, joined King on civil-rights marches.
``Ralph Bunche is a very important figure in American history, not just in African-American history,'' Blockson said. ``What he did is phenomenal, helping negotiate the peace settlement. It's hard to believe, with all you read about Israel, that this man is forgotten about.''
References to Bunche in college and school courses, he said, are ``almost nil. His name crops up every now and then.''
Dr. Carolyn Holmes, director of African-American studies for the Philadelphia School District, said Bunche's Nobel Prize ``comes up almost in trivia questioning.'' She added, ``you cannot properly teach that era'' without Bunche.
School officials say Bunche's role is mentioned in the curriculum but not as a major focus.
Bunche appears on a 20-cent stamp issued in 1982. He's the subject of a children's book in a series edited and written by retired Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis.
Dr. Shirley Turpin Parham, a retired teacher who works as an educator at the African-American Museum in Philadelphia, says Bunche deserves major credit for Israel's very existence.
``You can't have a country to celebrate until you have a negotiated peace treaty,'' she said.
Comparing the diplomat to his contemporary who integrated the major leagues, Parham said, ``That should tell you a lot about Ralph Bunche. That was a time Jackie Robinson was having trouble getting into baseball.''
Coincidentally, both men attended UCLA, where Bunche graduated summa cum laude in 1927 after starring in basketball and football. He went on to receive master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard, where he served as professor of government during his U.N. career.
Bunche was a skilled, dignified - and resourceful - negotiator. During tense talks on the Greek Island of Rhodes he ordered ceramic plates inscribed, ``Armistice Talks, Rhodes, 1949,'' which he showed to Israeli and Egyptian envoys.
``If you come to an agreement, you'll each receive such a plate as a souvenir,'' he told them. ``If you don't - I'll smash them on your heads.''
Bunche had succeeded Count Folke Bernadotte, who was assassinated by Jewish extremists in Jerusalem in September 1948. He directed U.N. observers stationed at cease-fire lines, where they cooled tensions and reduced fighting.
Bunche faced the ticklish task of negotiating with defeated Arab nations that would not even utter the word ``Israel.'' He oversaw armistices with Egypt, Jordan and Syria that set Israel's boundaries for a generation.
In 1956, Bunche was back as a Middle East troubleshooter on the settlement that returned the Suez Canal and the Sinai peninsula to Egypt. Those territories had been captured by Israel, Great Britain and France after a disastrous Egyptian invasion.
Bunche was born in Detroit in 1904 and orphaned at 13. After college, he joined the Howard University faculty and spent three years as chief assistant to Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal on his classic study of blacks called ``The American Dilemma.''
During World War II, Bunche held breakthrough jobs for the Office of Strategic Services and the State Department. He took leave to work at the U.N. in 1946.
Despite rumors of a possible U.S. Senate run and other high posts, Bunche remained at the U.N. until he retired shortly before his death in New York City, his longtime home.