JFK and the Student Airlift - page2

Philanthropy and Politics

The situation soon erupted into a political issue. A member of Vice President Nixon's campaign strategy board, Senator Hugh Scott of Pennsylvania, publicly praised the State Department's grant on August 16, neglecting to mention the prior commitment of the Kennedy Foundation.

Speaking the next day on the Senate floor, Senator Scott charged, according to an article in The New York Times "that a charitable foundation operated by the family of Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Presidential candidate had "outbid" the Government and would foot the $100,000 bill. He said this had been done for "blatant political purposes." Senator Kennedy took the floor and read a telegram from Frank Montero, head of the African-American Students Foundation, refuting this charge. The Massachusetts Senator said it was the "most unfair, distorted and malignant attack I have heard in fourteen years in politics."

JFK continued by detailing the sequence of events that led to pledging financial support for the African airlift. He concluded his rebuttal of Senator Scott with an assertion that "the Kennedy Foundation went into this quite reluctantly. . . . It was not a matter in which we sought to be involved. Nevertheless, Mr. Mboya came to see us and asked for help, when none of the other foundations could give it, when the Federal Government had turned it down quite precisely. We felt something ought to be done. To waste 250 scholarships in this country, to waste $200,000 these people had raised, to disappoint 250 students who hoped to come to this country, it certainly seemed to me, would be most unfortunate, and so we went ahead.

Other senators, from both sides of the aisle, came out in support of Kennedy. Vice President Nixon also appeared to distance himself from Scott's accusations. Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, subsequently attacked the State Department's apparent surrender to partisan politics and sent a letter to Secretary of State Christian Herter demanding answers to a series of questions regarding his department's involvement in the affair.

The controversy received a good deal of attention in the press over the next few weeks. Commentary in African American newspapers was especially critical. A writer in The Pittsburgh Courier editorialized:  "One of Nixon's henchmen showed State the deep point that the Kennedy gift would be worth a lot of Negro votes, which it would be best for Nixon to have in a tight contest, so all of a sudden State recalled that it had been for the project from the beginning!"

JFK's slim margin of victory in the 1960 presidential election could not be credited to any single group of supporters. But winning 68 percent of the African American vote was significant, amounting to a 7 percent increase compared with the previous election.

Encouraging Democracy in Africa

Fifteen former French, British, and Belgian colonies in Africa became independent during the summer and fall of 1960. Kennedy repeatedly stressed the importance of the United States reaching out to these emerging nations. Viewing American support as vital to their future, he also framed it as part of the larger Cold War struggle for hearts and minds—as in these remarks to a women's organization:

I believe that if we meet our responsibilities, if we extend the hand of friendship, if we live up to the ideals of our own revolution, then the course of African revolution in the next decade will be towards democracy and freedom and not towards communism and what could be a far more serious kind of colonialism. For it was the American Revolution, not the Russian revolution, which began man's struggle in Africa for national independence and national liberty. When the African National Congress in Rhodesia called for reform and justice, it threatened a Boston Tea Party, not a Bolshevik bomb. African Leader Tom Mboya invokes the American dream, not the Communist Manifesto.

By mid-September, "Airlift Africa, 1960" brought 295 students to New York City on four separate flights. (Many people referred to it as "The Kennedy Airlift.") Among those meeting with the students during their orientation week were Eunice Shriver of the Kennedy Foundation, playwright Lorraine Hansberry, and Malcolm X. The students enrolled in colleges and high schools in forty-one states and several Canadian provinces.

They would face challenges on many levels—dealing with racial segregation (particularly for those on campuses in the South), different social and cultural norms, and much higher costs for basic living expenses. At the same time, small support groups formed around many students, helping them to cope and to feel that they had a home away from home. In the process, a number of lifelong friendships were formed.