JFK and the Student Airlift
"Education is, in truth, the only key to genuine African independence and progress."
— Senator John F. Kennedy, February 12, 1960
At a key point in the 1960 presidential campaign, a dynamic young leader from Kenya named Tom Mboya visited Senator John F. Kennedy. Mboya led a campaign of his own that would eventually bring hundreds of African students to America for higher education, including Barack Obama Sr., President Obama's father. Kennedy's decision to support the effort became an issue in the election and possibly a factor in his narrow victory.
American Education for African Students
Senator John F. Kennedy and Tom Mboya first met in 1959 at a conference on international affairs. Just 28 years old, Mboya was a labor leader and rising political star in Kenya's liberation movement. At the time, he was on a speaking tour of North America seeking scholarships for Kenyan and other East African students whose opportunities for higher education under colonial rule were severely limited. Kennedy expressed interest in Mboya's initiative.
Tom Mboya's personal quest secured dozens of scholarships from American and Canadian institutions. He also attracted a number of key supporters, including businessman William Scheinman, former baseball star Jackie Robinson, singer Harry Belafonte, and actor Sidney Poitier. Along with several others, they created the African American Students Foundation (AASF), which raised funds for travel and living expenses. Their fundraising supplemented money raised by African students' families and tribal groups.
On September 11, 1959, eighty-one students from East Africa arrived in New York City on a chartered flight. After two days of orientation the students dispersed to colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada. Based on the success of the 1959 program, AASF obtained new scholarships for approximately 250 additional students from Kenya and six other East African countries, but they still had to raise $90,000 to cover the cost of airfare.
A Desperate Appeal
As the 1960-61 academic year drew closer, the situation was growing desperate. Appeals to the Department of State for help with transportation were rebuffed. Jackie Robinson approached Vice President Nixon on behalf of AASF and Nixon agreed to contact the State Department—again to no avail.
With the future of the project in jeopardy, Tom Mboya returned to the United States. On July 26, he flew to Cape Cod for a meeting with Senator Kennedy. Accompanying Mboya were his brother Alphonse (who was studying at Antioch College), William Scheinman, and Frank Montero, president of AASF.
Scheinman provided a thorough briefing about the situation of the East African students and asked the senator if he would take up their cause with the State Department. Kennedy doubted that he would have any more success on this front than Nixon. He discussed the options for private funding and promised a donation of $5,000 from the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation as long as the AASF promised not to publicize his involvement.
Senator Kennedy followed up with a call to his brother-in-law, Sargent Shriver, executive director of the Kennedy Foundation, asking him to find out if other private foundations would make contributions. Shriver's contacts over the next few days yielded no additional support.
JFK then recommended that the Kennedy Foundation contribute the entire amount needed for the 1960 airlift. In addition to this initial $100,000 contribution, the foundation would pledge up to $100,000 more to assist students with basic living expenses in the United States. The AASF was informed about this decision on August 10 and reminded again not to publicize the donation.
Word did leak out, however, and the Nixon campaign learned that the Kennedy Foundation was financing the airlift. A Nixon campaign staff member then went back to the State Department, which promptly reversed its previous decisions and offered to provide $100,000 for the project. The AASF board ultimately accepted the Kennedy Foundation's support and urged the State Department to make its funding available to other needy African students.