August 08, 2003

Notes: Nixon and Civil Rights

Topic: Notes: Nixon and Civil Rights

From Sally L. Todd

In the election of 1960, Martin Luther King Senior did not endorse Nixon. After Kennedy personally called Coretta King when Martin Jr. had been sent to the Georgia Penitentiary for driving on an expired license, "Daddy" King made a public statement to the effect that he had a bushel full of votes he planned to deliver to John Kennedy.

There is another intersection between Civil Rights and Cold War International Relations that emerged in the 1960 campaign that is most telling, though sadly it has not gotten sufficient attention. Beginning about 1957 the Ford Foundation, and a number of educational groups and institutions did a substantial study of College and Graduate Level opportunities and achievements among elite in African countries scheduled for independence or decolonization. Of course they found much lacking. Their recommendation was to establish a significant number of places in quality American institutions for offer to young Africans with both academic promise and leadership ability. In the fall of 1960 this program was scheduled to begin with the arrival of 500 African students. Ford and other foundations had arranged full scholarships for this group, with many institutions making their own scholarship commitments. The only involvement of the US Government in the project was to be award of travel grants to get the students here, and of course the normal visa services. Most of the Travel Grants were actually to be paid with Counterpart funds -- so there was little direct cost to the Government.

In August of 1960 -- just before the students were to depart on Charters that had been organized, the opponents of the project raised it in the US Senate, and there was a full floor debate over the inclusion of the Travel Grant costs in the State Department Appropriations Bill. The debate went on for several days, and eventually the Senate vote was tied, and Nixon cast the deciding vote against funding what by then had come to be called the "African Student Airlift."

The following weekend, Tom Myoba (a Kenyan Labor Leader then traveling in the US) visited the Kennedy home at Hyannisport, and the Kennedy Family foundations agreed to pay for the Charter flights. As a result, the students all arrived, though they lost about a week of their planned orientation program. It might be useful in appreciating this story to know that among the first group of students selected for this project was Kofi Annan.

Nixon's deciding vote against this project was covered by the major media as it happened, but it was covered in depth by the Black Press, in large measure because the Ford Foundation and other organizations involved with sponsorship had made a major effort to organize elite parts of the African American community as hosts and sponsors for these young people selected because they likely would become leaders in postcolonial Africa. The Host Family recruitment literature actually spelled out how this was an opportunity for Black Americans to make a contribution to the effort against Communist inroads in Africa. To the extent that much support for a Republican Candidate remained in the Black Community, it was cheap decisions such as Nixon's deciding vote on the African Airlift, that further diminished Republican allegiance, and it was the well advertised decision of the Kennedy Family Foundations to pay the fares that led many previously Republican Black leaders to support John Kennedy. The fact that the source of support for the Airlift was well publicized in African states sending their elite students to the US had major value for Kennedy once he was elected. One only has to look at the pictures of honor guards made up of the liberation leadership of these emerging countries sending off their best students to the US for top quality education to appreciate the meaning of this program in the Cold War environment.

Posted by DeLong at August 8, 2003 08:00 PM | TrackBack


The GOP had a real window of opportunity at that point. No one remembers it now, but (according to Gallup) Ike got fully 40% of the black vote against Stevenson in 1956 (because of Little Rock),and, even more amazingly, Nixon got 30% of it against JFK (although anti-Catholic bias among blacks may have been partially responsible for that). The GOP, however, consciously threw all that away, both because most blacks were poor and the GOP detests poor people on principle, and because they decided instead to appeal to the bigger new constituency of white racists -- which, over the next few decades, paid off very well for them (and to a considerable extent still is).

Posted by: Bruce Moomaw on August 8, 2003 08:57 PM

It seems that Nixon's "Southern Strategy" predated his 1968 election by quite a while. In fact, I'm willing to say that Nixon wasn't being cynical at all in his appeal for the southern racist vote - he was simply expressing his own personal prejudices.

I don't agree with Bruce Moomaw's statement that "the GOP" as a whole consciously threw away the black vote; the 1964 Civil Rights Act could never have been passed without Republican votes. I think a more accurate description of events would be to say that the Goldwater faction of the GOP, along with the Richard Nixon and his operatives, decided to dump both the black vote and that of northern Rockefeller Republicans in exchange for those of the good ol' boys.

Posted by: Abiola Lapite on August 9, 2003 05:22 AM
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