Of all the African leaders of the 1960s independence era, none was more appealing than Tom Mboya. When he visited American colleges, Mboya generated rock-star adulation, and he counted Martin Luther King Jr. and Harry Belafonte among his admirers. Mboya was assassinated in 1969, but he left behind a remarkable legacy that is the subject of a just-published book, Airlift to America. It tells the story of how Mboya and a handful of Americans helped bring nearly 800 African students, mainly from Kenya, to the United States to attend college fifty years ago. The “airlift,” as it became known, not only helped Kenyans prepare to take over from British colonial officials but also, as Tom Shachtman, the author, reveals, it had an effect–probably small, but possibly critical–on the 1960 US presidential election.

The Kenyan airlift veterans are a remarkable group. They include Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, who attended Mount St. Scholastica College in Kansas; Kenya’s best-known columnist, Philip Ochieng, who received his BA from Roosevelt University in Chicago; and Perez Olindo, the first African head of Kenya’s national parks, who studied at Central Missouri State. President Obama’s father was not technically part of the airlift, since he had private funding for his travel to the University of Hawaii, but he and other African students who went to the United States at that time were regarded as members of the “airlift generation.” Owino Okong’o, an airlift student who went on to become a professor of medical physiology, later described the airlift as having “transformed the elite culture of Kenyans from the British model to the American model in which performance is more important than where you went to school.”

Although this history is well known, at least in Kenya, what’s not been fully examined until Airlift to America is the role the airlift played in US politics. The 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaign, in which Nixon enjoyed substantial African-American support, coincided with the second year of the airlift–and with frantic efforts by Mboya and some Americans (among them Cora Weiss, who has preserved the archives of the African American Students Foundation, on which Airlift is based) to raise money to charter enough planes to accommodate all the students who had obtained scholarships. After their funding requests to the State Department and several foundations were rebuffed, Mboya made a personal appeal to John Kennedy, to whom he’d been introduced by mutual friends. Kennedy promised a small donation from the Kennedy Family Foundation on the spot, and later the foundation agreed to cover the entire $100,000 cost of the flights.

The Kennedys made no announcement of their gift, but someone leaked it to the Nixon campaign, which pushed the State Department to reverse itself and fund the airlift. State did so, but the airlift organizers decided to stick with the Kennedy offer. Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, GOP Senator Hugh Scott blasted Kennedy for “an apparent misuse of tax-exempt foundation money for blatant political purposes”–charges that, to the GOP’s chagrin, brought widespread support for Kennedy’s action and an enormous amount of publicity to the airlift.

Airlift doesn’t go as far as to claim that the incident made all the difference in the November election. But Shachtman does argue that the airlift “was equally if not more crucial” in Kennedy’s razor-thin victories in several key states with significant African-American voting strength than the often-cited phone call Kennedy made to Coretta Scott King after her husband was arrested and a subsequent call Robert Kennedy made to the judge in the case.

Reading Airlift while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting Africa recently, I couldn’t help reflecting on how history might have been different if Mboya and Kennedy had lived. Perhaps Mboya would have helped Kenya build on the idealism of the airlift generation, serving as an example to the continent and sending the country down a different path from the one that almost led to civil war in 2007-08. And maybe Kennedy would have come to view Africa as full of talented go-getters rather than as a white man’s burden inherited from the colonialists–an attitude that seems to underlie much of US policy even today. Whatever the case, Airlift offers an intriguing tidbit of US history and a look back at a brief moment when many Americans and Africans caught glimpses of a shared and hopeful future.