The story of Tom Mboya and Martin Luther King Jr.’s first meeting.

Joshua Prieto

May 2, 2022

Image: Tom Mboya

Tom Mboya was an influential politician in Kenya. He worked extensively to create workers and trade unions in Kenya. He helped secure Kenya’s independence and became an active member of the government. Mboya held positions as the minister of labor and, later, as Economic planning minister. Mboya had close relations with many political figures in the USA.

On April 18th, 1959, Tom Mboya spoke during a march on Washington in support of the implementation of the Brown V. Board of Education decision. He gave a speech to nearly 20,000 people with other speakers like Martin Luther King and Roy Wilkins.

The main mission of Mboya’s US tour was to begin fundraising and gaining support for his Student Airlift program. The program allowed African students the chance to study at American Universities.

Tom Mboya landed in Atlanta and was welcomed by Ralph Abernathy, Horace Mann Bond, Martin Luther King, and Rufus Clement.

Mboya gave a speech during the “African Freedom Dinner” and talked with Martin Luther King Jr. King also gave a speech during this dinner.

Mboya and King began a brief correspondence after their meeting.

On 16 June, shortly after attending an SCLC-sponsored “Africa Freedom Dinner,” Kenyan nationalist leader Mboya wrote King requesting financial assistance for a Kenyan student who was to enter Tuskegee Institute in the fall. King responded, praising Mboya’s work in Kenya. He thanked Mboya for his praise and commented on the similarities their movements for freedom had, stating ” I am absolutely convinced that there is no basic difference between colonialism and segregation.” He then affirmed that he would help fund the education of an African student.

Letter from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Tom Mboya:

Tom Mboya’s trip to the US was very important in shaping his political future. He met with many influential Americans involved in civil rights and politics.

Mboya met with influential American figures before his return to Kenya.

Tom Mboya even met his future wife during his US tour while she was attending an American University. Mboya married Pamela Odede and raised five children in Kenya. They were together until Tom Mboya’s assassination in 1969.

Mboya, and others, work to fundraise and support the Airlift program was successful. Between 1959 and 1962, over 700 students were able to go to the US for education. This allowed well-educated Kenyans to return and help Kenya organize and develop a stable government.


Mboya Visits the U.S.

Houser, G. M. (1959). Mboya Visits the U.S. Africa Today6(3), 9–11.

Remarks delivered at Africa Freedom Dinner at Atlanta University

Remarks delivered at Africa Freedom Dinner at Atlanta University. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. (2021, May 24). Retrieved May 2, 2022, from 

Letter to Tom Mboya

To Tom Mboya. The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. (2021, May 24). Retrieved May 2, 2022, from 

African American Students Foundation

African American Students Foundation. African Activist archive. (n.d.). Retrieved May 2, 2022, from 

Thomas Mboya (Joseph Odhiambo) (1930-1969)

Hegazy, A. (2011, January 16). Thomas Mboya (Joseph Odhiambo) (1930-1969) •. •. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from 

Airlifts of US: The first Kenyans to study in America

The East African. (2016, December 2). Airlifts of US: The first Kenyans to study in America. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from