How Tom Mboya Won Negroe Votes for John Kennedy

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In 1960 when Mboya sought financial assistance for another airlift from senior US politicians, the elections were just some few months away.

First he approached the US government under President Dwight Eisenhower and Vice-president Richard Nixon, but all his four requests were turned down.

He then turned to Senator JF Kennedy who had just been nominated as the Democratic Party candidate for US presidential election.

Even though as a senator Kennedy had exhibited a great interest in Africa, he knew sponsoring the airlift would come with political benefits in his quest to become the 35th President of the US.

Just after winning the Democratic Party ticket he invited Mboya to his family home at Hyannis Port. Mboya was picked up at Barnstable Municipal Airport by Kennedy’s sister,Eunice Shriver, and driven back to the airport by Kennedy family chauffeur.

During the meeting after listening to Mboya, Kennedy first promised $ 50,000 through his family Foundation, but later decided to finance the whole airlift.

This did not go down well with Eisenhower’s Republican government which on learning about the offer rescinded its earlier decision and offered Mboya $100,000 .

Mboya, however, rejected the offer accusing the Republicans of having an ulterior motive of winning Black votes by diminishing the expansive help given to the students by the Kennedy Foundation. “Besides, our idea is not to get involved with government,”he added.

The elections were first approaching and the Republicans feared that sponsoring the airlift would win Kennedy Black votes. The dispute flared-up on the floor of the US senate where Sen Hugh Scott accused the Kennedy family of outbidding the government by sponsoring the airlift “to win Negroe votes” adding that he was “concerned at the apparent misuse of tax exempt foundation money for blatant political purposes”.

Kennedy countered the allegations with the assertion that his family foundation only agreed to finance the airlift after it learnt that the State Department had vetoed it four times.

In his campaigns Kennedy mentioned Africa hundreds of times, far more than he mentioned civil rights. To him Africa was the newest frontier one where he could burnish his Cold War credentials by attracting new states on the side of the West, while making himself known as candidate sympathetic to Black Americans.

Africa held real and symbolic importance to Black Americans whose votes were critical in the elections. The decision by Kennedy to sponsor the airlift was therefore greatly recieved by many who saw it as an opportunity to improve African education.

During the presidential campaign, the Kennedy forces emphasized his airlift support in African-American newspapers. This publicity was later deemed to have played a significant role in the Black community’s high turnout for Kennedy in one of America’s closest presidential elections.

Kennedy went on to win the election taking 49.7% of the popular vote against $49.5% of his Republican rival Richard Nixon, while in the electoral College he won 303 to Nixon’s 219. According to NBC News Kennedy received 70% of the black vote which helped him win several swing states.

Odhiambo Levin Opiyo is a Kenyan Historian and a Researcher, he write from London, United kingdom.

 

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