WASHINGTON - Addressing civil rights activists in Selma, Ala., a year ago, Senator Barack Obama traced his "very existence" to the generosity of the Kennedy family, which he said paid for his Kenyan father to travel to America on a student scholarship and thus meet his Kansan mother.
The Camelot connection has become part of the mythology surrounding Obama's bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. After Caroline Kennedy endorsed his candidacy in January, Newsweek commentator Jonathan Alter reported that she had been struck by the extraordinary way in which "history replays itself" and by how "two generations of two families - separated by distance, culture, and wealth - can intersect in strange and wonderful ways."
It is a touching story, but the key details are either untrue or grossly oversimplified. Contrary to Obama's claims in speeches in January at American University and in Selma last year, the Kennedy family didn't fund a September 1959 airlift of 81 Kenyan students to the United States that included Obama's father.
According to historical records and interviews with participants, the Kennedys were first approached for support for the program nearly a year later, in July 1960. The family responded with a $100,000 donation, most of which went to pay for a second airlift in September 1960.
Obama spokesman Bill Burton acknowledged yesterday that the senator from Illinois had erred in crediting the Kennedy family with a role in his father's arrival in the United States. He said the Kennedy involvement in the Kenya student program apparently "started 48 years ago, not 49 years ago as Obama has mistakenly suggested in the past."
In his speech commemorating the 42d anniversary of the Selma civil rights march, Senator Obama linked his father's arrival in the United States with the turmoil of the civil rights movement.
Although the airlift occurred before John Kennedy became president, Obama said that "folks in the White House" around President Kennedy were looking for ways to counter charges of hypocrisy and "win hearts and minds all across the world" at a time when America was "battling communism."
"So the Kennedys decided 'we're going to do an airlift,' " Obama continued. " 'We're going to go to Africa and start bringing young Africans over to this country and give them scholarships to study so they can learn what a wonderful country America is.' " His father, he said, got one of the tickets.
A more accurate version of the story would begin not with the Kennedys but with a Kenyan nationalist leader named Tom Mboya, who traveled to the United States in 1959 and 1960 to persuade thousands of Americans to support his efforts to educate a new African elite. Mboya did not approach the Kennedys for financial support until Obama Sr. was already studying in Hawaii.
During his 1959 trip to the United States, Mboya, 29, raised enough money for scholarships for 81 young Kenyans, including Obama Sr., with the help of the African-American Students Foundation.
Stephen Plotkin, an archivist at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston, said a search of the records did not turn up any evidence that the Kennedys supported the airlift.