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Obama Overstates Kennedys' Role in Helping His Father

Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy met with Kenya's Tom Mboya in July 1960 to discuss funding for the second African student airlift.
Then-Sen. John F. Kennedy met with Kenya's Tom Mboya in July 1960 to discuss funding for the second African student airlift. (Courtesy Of Susan Mboya -- Zawadi Africa Educational Program)
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By Michael Dobbs
Sunday, March 30, 2008

Addressing civil rights activists in Selma, Ala., a year ago, Sen. Barack Obama traced his "very existence" to the generosity of the Kennedy family, which he said paid for his Kenyan father to travel to America on a student scholarship and thus meet his Kansan mother.

The Camelot connection has become part of the mythology surrounding Obama's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. After Caroline Kennedy endorsed his candidacy in January, Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter reported that she had been struck by the extraordinary way in which "history replays itself" and by how "two generations of two families -- separated by distance, culture and wealth -- can intersect in strange and wonderful ways."

It is a touching story -- but the key details are either untrue or grossly oversimplified.

Contrary to Obama's claims in speeches in January at American University and in Selma last year, the Kennedy family did not provide the funding for a September 1959 airlift of 81 Kenyan students to the United States that included Obama's father. According to historical records and interviews with participants, the Kennedys were first approached for support for the program nearly a year later, in July 1960. The family responded with a $100,000 donation, most of which went to pay for a second airlift in September 1960.

Obama spokesman Bill Burton acknowledged yesterday that the senator from Illinois had erred in crediting the Kennedy family with a role in his father's arrival in the United States. He said the Kennedy involvement in the Kenya student program apparently "started 48 years ago, not 49 years ago as Obama has mistakenly suggested in the past."

The real story of Barack Obama Sr.'s arrival in the United States and the subsequent Kennedy involvement in the airlifts of African students sheds light on the highly competitive presidential election of 1960 and Africa's struggle to free itself from colonialism, as well as the huge strides made by the Obama family, which has gone in two generations from herding goats in the hills of western Kenya to the doors of the White House.

In his speech commemorating the 42nd anniversary of the Selma civil rights march, Sen. Obama linked his father's arrival in the United States with the turmoil of the civil rights movement. Although the airlift occurred before John F. Kennedy became president, Obama said that "folks in the White House" around President Kennedy were looking for ways to counter charges of hypocrisy and "win hearts and minds all across the world" at a time when America was "battling communism."

"So the Kennedys decided 'we're going to do an airlift,' " Obama continued. " 'We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.' This young man named Barack Obama got one of those tickets and came over to this country. He met this woman whose great-great-great-great-grandfather had owned slaves. . . . So they got together and Barack Obama Jr. was born."

A more accurate version of the story would begin not with the Kennedys but with a Kenyan nationalist leader named Tom Mboya, who traveled to the United States in 1959 and 1960 to persuade thousands of Americans to support his efforts to educate a new African elite. Mboya did not approach the Kennedys for financial support until Obama Sr. was already studying in Hawaii.

Mboya, a charismatic politician, was assassinated in 1969. His daughter Susan, now living in Ohio, said the mass airlifts of Kenyan students to the United States had a "huge" impact on the young African nation, which gained its independence from Britain in 1963. She cited a University of Nairobi study that showed that 70 percent of top Kenyan officials after independence, including Obama Sr., were products of the American program.

In the late 1950s, there was no university in Kenya, and educational opportunities for Africans were limited. The British colonial government opposed Mboya's efforts to send talented young Kenyans to the United States for an education, arguing that there was a perfectly good university, Makerere College, in neighboring Uganda. The U.S. State Department supported the British and turned down Mboya's requests for assistance.

During his 1959 trip to the United States, the 29-year-old Mboya raised enough money for scholarships for 81 young Kenyans, including Obama Sr., with the help of the African-American Students Foundation. Records show that almost 8,000 individuals contributed. Early supporters included baseball star Jackie Robinson, who gave $4,000, and actors Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier.


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