Airlift to America


During World War ll, millions of Africans, Asians, Caribbeans and Latin Americans fought bravely alongside Allied forces to crush Hitler and his fascist allies. Not much has been written about them. Their commitment was to not only put an end to fascism but also to the concept of race supremacy, and to invest their hopes in promises of democracy and social equality. When the war ended, those promises of a more humane and compassionate world were not fulfilled. Throughout the world, colonialism continued to thrive and, in America, the unjust laws of legal segregation and racial oppression grew with a vengeance.

I volunteered and served in the armed forces of the United States during World War II, and recall how painful it was for me, and for hundreds of thousands of African-American men and women who served the country, to return home only to find that there was no reward for us. It was a bitter time because in the wake of this great victory, America showed no generosity toward its citizens of color. We returned to intensified conditions of racial, political, and social oppression. The same was true for millions of people of color around the world. The British, French, Dutch, and Portuguese, who had colonized more than two-thirds of the world’s population, subjected their victims to the same harsh, inhumane conditions being experienced in the United States by black Americans. But, like black Americans, the colonial peoples refused to return to ‘business as usual’. Together, they began a great global rebellion.

In 1956 I met a remarkable young man, my age, with a revolutionary vision that would change the course of history. His name was Tom Mboya, a labor leader with a passionate dedication to rid his country, Kenya, of the shackles of colonialism. He detailed for me a view of Africa that inspired my commitment to its struggle for liberation.

Airlift to America tells the story of Tom’s vision and the courage of hundreds of young people who dared to venture forth to unknown destinations that were far from the heretofore “acceptable” places for higher education, such as London and Moscow.

It also tells the story of a group of white and black Americans who understood that in post-colonial, independent Africa, without education there could be no government, no democracy, and no justice. This group became as active in supporting the liberation struggle in Africa as it was in its commitment to the civil rights movement and erasing the brutality of racism in our country. It was a very, very tiny but valiant group of people who accomplished remarkable things.

Tom sought me out and through his eyes I saw the harsh ugliness of colonialism. I met extraordinary young people determined to live life free of the prison of colonialism. Kenya, like Tanganyika and the other East African countries, then had no universities. There was only one college, Makerere, in Uganda and it was a technical school. The fear was that when Uhuru – freedom -- came to Kenya in 1963, there would not be enough people prepared to take over the many civil service, diplomatic, and teaching positions that would be vacated by the British.

Nineteen fifty-nine saw the rise of anti-colonial support movements around the world as well as the rise of the civil rights movement in our country led by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr . -- he, too, was just 30 years old – and the rise of a young senator with presidential aspirations, John F. Kennedy, chair of the Senate subcommittee on Africa.

The period and spirit of the Airlift were connected to, and in line and rhythm with, the whole landscape of America on the issues of race and civil rights. I knew first hand, and through the eyes of Dr. King, of the boycotts and turmoil in the south. It was perfectly natural for us to want to be part of both of these creative struggles for freedom. Largely as a result of Mboya’s meeting with John F. Kennedy and the Senator’s meeting with Dr. King, he, too, learned to appreciate the historic significance and moral imperative of the liberation struggle in Africa and the civil rights movement in America. Kennedy’s role in supporting the 1960 airlift and Dr. King’s movement proved equally important.

I, along with Jackie Robinson and fellow artist Sidney Poitier, agreed to help implement Tom’s vision. I wrote letters and gave concerts to raise funds to charter airplanes that would bring young people from East Africa who had successfully applied for scholarships at many of our colleges and universities. The concerts did well and the response to the mailing was extraordinary. Postal workers from the Bronx sent $1 and $2 contributions with a letter explaining how important they realized the Airlift would be for the future of a free Africa. Many people from across America sent their precious contributions, few exceeding $25. It was an amazing outpouring of belief in a dream.

Today, Professor Wangari Maathai, who came on the 1960 Airlift, is the first African woman to become a Nobel Peace laureate. Perez Olindo, a 1959 Airlift alumnus, became one of Kenya and Africa’s greatest conservationists. Professor Mahmood Mamdani of Columbia University, the brilliant “public intellectual” from Uganda, came on the 1963 Airlift. Their stories and many others are recounted in these pages. One that readers will find of great interest is that of Barack Hussein Obama, Sr. Imagine: perhaps if not for support from the African American Students Foundation, he might not have come to America. Then who would be in the White House today?

We had no idea how many ripple effects this effort, the vision of young Tom Mboya, would have both in East Africa and in our own country. Tragically, the men who took the risks, who had the passion to insist on equality, justice and freedom, all met similar fates. Tom Mboya might one day have been president of Kenya. He was assassinated in 1969. Dr. King, who met with Mboya and also helped a number of Airlift students, was felled by an assassin in 1968. John F. Kennedy, who was so impressed with Tom at their first meeting in 1959 that he persuaded his father’s family foundation to support the 1960 airlift, was gunned down in 1963.

This book about the Airlift and its impact is also a testament to the continued need for young people with courageous visions to take risks for social change. And for the rest of us to support them.

-- Harry Belafonte

From Airlift to America, by Tom Shachtman © 2009, Foreword © 2009 by Harry Belafonte. All rights reserved. Printed by St. Martin’s Press.

Support for this website was provided by the TASK Foundation, named for its founders, Ted and Ann S. Kheel, who helped organize the airlift and hosted airlift students at their house.