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.
There was enormous excitement when the Britannia aircraft took off for New York with the future Kenyan elite on board. After a few weeks of orientation, the students were dispatched to universities across the United States to study subjects that would help them govern Kenya after the departure of the British. Obama Sr. was interested in economics and was sent to Hawaii, where he met, and later married, a Kansas native named Ann Dunham. Barack Jr. was born in August 1961.
Among the other students on the first airlift was Philip Ochieng, who went on to become a prominent Kenyan journalist. In a 2004 article for the Nation, Kenya's leading newspaper, Ochieng remembered Obama Sr. as "charming, generous and extraordinarily clever," but also "imperious, cruel and given to boasting about his brain and his wealth." Obama Jr. paints a similar portrait in his best-selling 1995 autobiography, "Dreams From My Father," describing his father as exceptionally gifted but also "wild," "boastful" and "stubborn."
After the success of the first student airlift, Mboya decided to expand the program in 1960 and to include students from neighboring African countries. This time, he raised $250,000 for 256 students. Universities and colleges promised scholarships worth $1,600,000, but Mboya still needed money for the airlift itself. His American friends suggested that he approach Sen. John F. Kennedy, who had just launched his presidential campaign. In addition to chairing a Senate subcommittee on Africa, Kennedy controlled the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation, named after his older brother who was killed in World War II.
The two men met at the Kennedy compound at Hyannis Port, Mass., on July 26, 1960. Kennedy later said that the family was initially "reluctant" to support the program because of other commitments but eventually agreed to provide $100,000 because it was impossible to raise the funds elsewhere.
Stephen Plotkin, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, said a search of the records did not turn up any evidence that the Kennedy family supported the 1959 airlift.
Vice President Richard M. Nixon, determined not to be outdone by his Democratic rival for the White House, persuaded the State Department to drop its long-standing refusal to fund the program. The head of the Nixon campaign "truth squad," Sen. Hugh Scott, accused Kennedy of attempting to "outbid the U.S. government" in a "misuse of tax-exempt foundation money for blatant political purposes." Kennedy responded by accusing the Nixon campaign of "the most unfair, distorted and malignant attack that I have heard in 14 years in politics."
The former executive director of the African-American Students Foundation, Cora Weiss, said some of the money provided by the Kennedys was used to pay off old debts and subsidize student stipends. Even though Obama Sr. arrived the previous year, he and other members of the 1959 cohort benefited indirectly from Kennedy family support.
According to a letter on file in the Mboya papers at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, "most" of Obama Sr.'s early expenses in the United States were covered by an international literacy expert named Elizabeth Mooney Kirk, who had traveled widely in Kenya. Kirk wrote to Mboya in May 1962 to request additional funds to "sponsor Barack Obama for graduate study, preferably at Harvard." She said she would "like to do more" to assist the young man but had two stepchildren ready for college.
Susan Mboya credits the student airlifts with helping to make Kenya "an island of stability in a region rocked by turmoil" until very recently. "We were fortunate in having a lot of highly educated people who were able to come back and take over the government after the British left," she said. Products of the airlift project included Africa's first female Nobel Peace Prize winner, the environmentalist Wangari Maathai.
Obama's Selma speech offers a very confused chronology of both the Kenya student program and the civil rights movement. Relating the story of how his parents met, Obama said: "There was something stirring across the country because of what happened in Selma, Alabama, because some folks are willing to march across a bridge. So they got together and Barack Obama Junior was born. So don't tell me I don't have a claim on Selma, Alabama."
After bloggers pointed out that the Selma bridge protest occurred four years after Obama's birth, a spokesman explained that the senator was referring to the civil rights movement in general, rather than any one event.
Obama Sr. never quite lived up to his enormous potential. He achieved his dream of studying at Harvard after graduating from the University of Hawaii. He divorced Dunham in 1963 and married another woman.
He returned to Kenya and became a close aide to Mboya, a fellow Luo tribesman, at the Ministry of Economic Development. According to his old "drinking buddy" Ochieng, he antagonized other officials with his "boasting," was "excessively fond of Scotch" and ended up in poverty "without a job." He got into frequent car accidents, one of which led to the amputation of both his legs. He was killed in another car accident, in 1982, at the age of 46.
Special correspondent Michael Zielenziger in Stanford, Calif., contributed to this report.