Following is my review of Airlift to America – How Barack Obama, Sr., John F. Kennedy, Tom Mboya, and 800 East African Students Changed Their World and Ours by Tom Shachtman, St. Martin’s Press, NY, 2009.
There is a lot of history in this book that chronicles the times and story of an irregular, spontaneous, ad hoc, but still carefully organized process that steered hundreds of Kenyans and other East Africans to the United States for college studies. Those students, who included – as the title carefully notes – Barack Obama, Sr. constituted a wave of Africans that swept into a variety of U.S. campuses in the early civil rights era in the U.S. and the pre-independence years of their home nations. These men and women made their marks, both in the U.S. where although befuddled by racist attitudes, they became exemplary scholars and - on predominately white campuses - opened doors for black Americans. Upon returning to Africa, their impact was even greater as they truly became the leaders of their nascent states –politicians, educators, economists, bankers, businessmen and activists of many varieties.
The process was championed by Tom Mboya, a visionary who correctly reckoned that Kenya sorely needed many, many more numerous educated cadres to compliment the few elites who received overseas scholarships from the colonial government. Rather than opt for Soviet entreaties, he chose America. In the late fifties and early sixties, hundreds of Kenyans were applying directly to and being accepted by American colleges and universities, mostly second or third tier institutions including historically black colleges and small Protestant liberal arts schools. Tuition was generally waived and on-campus jobs promised, yet the hurdle of raising a thousand dollars for air fare was daunting. Mboya’s dream was to provide the transportation; hence the airlift. To this end he enlisted American activists including Bill Scheinman, Frank Montero, Cora Weiss and others supported by concerned celebrities Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson and Sydney Portier. With strong support from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and eventually Senator John F. Kennedy, the idea began to bloom.
The organization they created was the African American Students Foundation (AASF) which pulled together some previous individual efforts (Robinson’s for example) into a more coherent whole whereby Mboya and colleagues in Nairobi would select students for the charter flights which AASF would fund. AASF also took on counseling responsibilities for the students once in the U.S. Helping them adjust, providing small sums of spending money, organizing summer jobs, assisting in transfers, etc. AASF also undertook to contact thousands more schools successfully to urge sponsorship of additional African students.
Transportation money was a hurdle for students, but it was also an obstacle for AASF. The big foundations and the Department of State shunned the organization judging it to be too much of a shoestring operation and without “adequate” criteria for student selection. Nonetheless, AASF persevered, politicked and raised what they could for airlifts beginning in 1959. In 1960 in the months before the American political conventions, Tom Mboya met with candidate Senator Kennedy. Mboya convinced him to use over $100,000 of Kennedy family foundation monies to fund the airlift. When word of this leaked out, sensing its political value, Vice President Nixon pressured the recalcitrant State Department also to offer funding, but too late. AASF judged the Kennedy money to be real and State’s offer entangled with strings. After the election airlift funding did shift to the government. However, some of the philosophy of AASF’s student self-motivation principles, its wider diversity and focus on student support services were also incorporated into the State Department program run by mainline foundations and contractors.
If this summary is all this book was about then enough said, but it is much more. It is a well researched primer on the evolution of American political thinking about Africa , about the role of Africa in the 1960 election, about how the airlift angle rebounded much to Kennedy’s credit in energizing black voters, of how this issue led to meetings and dialogue between Kennedy and King and subsequently to educating Kennedy, theretofore not focused, to recognition that progress on civil rights was key to America’s future.
On the Kenyan side, there is reflection on Mboya’s career and his prospects, on how he fit in, or did not, into the emerging Kenyan political scene.
Throughout the book is sprinkled with anecdotes from hundreds of the airlifted students – who they were, where they studied, what they remembered and what they subsequently became or did. Indeed it is a very impressive list that in addition to Obama, includes Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai, Kenyan Vice President George Saitoti and dozens of others. There is also an interesting analysis of the impact that African students had on the rather insular communities where they landed. Even as they learned, they taught Americans about the outside world.
I found several small errors of fact. The most surprising in a book of this nature was the statement that Jomo Kenyatta was “educated in the USSR as well as in America.” Although it is technically accurate to say that he studied in the USSR, he was only there for less than a year (1932-1933). Kenyatta attended university and received his degrees in the U.K., where he lived from the early 1930s until after WWII. There is no record of him coming to America until he was President.
This book is recommended reading for Kenyan aficionados.