In May 1959, African trade unionist and nationalist Thomas Mboya was honored by Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) at an “Africa Freedom Dinner.” Prior to Mboya’s keynote address, King delivered introductory remarks noting the link between the American civil rights movement and the African Liberation Movement. “Our struggle is not an isolated struggle,” King insisted. “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality” (Papers 5:203–204).
Mboya was born 15 August 1930 in Kilima Mbogo, Kenya. He founded the Kenya Local Government Workers’ Union, and after many of its leaders were jailed Mboya assumed the leadership of the Kenya Federation of Labour in 1953, distinguished himself by mediating the Mombasa dockworkers’ strike in 1955. Mboya returned to Kenya after studying at Ruskin College in Oxford, England, and was elected to Kenya’s Legislative Council in 1957. The same year, he formed the People’s Convention Party, over which he presided.
Mboya coordinated an “airlift” of 81 Kenyan students to the United States to attend college, and shortly after attending the “Africa Freedom Dinner,” Mboya wrote King requesting financial assistance for a Kenyan student who was to enter Tuskegee Institute in the fall. In an 8 November 1959 letter to the New York Times, Mboya explained: “Nothing constitutes a greater contribution to the struggle against poverty, disease and political subjection in Africa more than the contribution made toward our peoples’ educational advancement.” With the help of the African-American Students Foundation and its sponsors, Harry Belafonte, Jackie Robinson, and Sidney Poitier, Mboya raised sufficient funds to cover the students’ travel expenses.
King believed that Africans and African Americans shared “a common struggle” against colonialism and segregation and took an active interest in the education of African students (Yette, “M. L. King Supports African Student”). As colonial and post-colonial African governments lacked the will or the capacity to educate their population, King encouraged college presidents in the United States to expand financial aid options available to Africans. He arranged for the Montgomery Improvement Association and other Montgomery organizations to fund five Kenyan students to study at American universities and pledged the SCLC and Dexter Avenue Baptist Church to fund the living expenses for Kenyan student Nicholas Raballa, who was admitted to Tuskegee Institute.
For the next several years, Mboya worked to lay the foundation for an active Kenya African National Union, Kenya’s first black-majority political party, and was instrumental in achieving independence for Kenya in 1963. He was an outspoken critic of government corruption, led by Kenyan President Jomo Kenyatta, and in July 1969, Mboya was assassinated at the age of 39.
King, Remarks Delivered at Africa Freedom Dinner at Atlanta University, 13 May 1959, in Papers 5:203–204.
King to Tom Mboya, 8 July 1959, in Papers 5:242–243.
Mboya to the Editor of the New York Times, 8 November 1959, MLKP-MBU.
S. F. Yette, “M. L. King Supports African Student,” News of Tuskegee Institute, December 1959.