Martin Luther King Jr and Tom Mboya – Labour Movement Leaders
Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in America. On the third Monday of January every year, shops close for a day to honor civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights hero who was assassinated by a white supremacist.
Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is the first holiday around a national figure who is not a president, and who is African American.
Martin Luther King jr. had a dream that one day in America, his children and grandchildren will live without being judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. His dream did not stop at America, for he espoused a larger dream for Africa summed up in his clarion call “Wherever people are in the world, whether in Nairobi, Kenya; Johannesburg,South Africa; or Accra, Ghana, people want to be free.”
Dr. King cultivated a close friendship with Tom Mboya that was established around 1957.
How did this come about?
In 1956, Mboya, the then Secretary General of Kenya Federation of Labor, was invited to America by the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). ACOA had become the largest private organization committed to African-America relations and American assistance to Africa. It also offered educational opportunities in America to future African leaders, you know, get them prepared for the task ahead of nation building because it was apparent Britain was not keen on building the capacity of African leaders.
Notable members of ACOA included Philip Randolph, Charles Diggs, Sidney Poitier, Adam Clayton Powell, Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., among others.
At the time of this invitation, Mboya was pursuing a one year course at the Ruskin college in Oxford. While there, he met Rev. Michael Scott, a white minister who had a reputation lobbying for Africans in South Africa and West Africa. In London, Mboya informed Rev. Scott of his interest in contracting trade unionists in America.
After the meeting, Rev. Scott wrote to ACOA suggesting they invite Mboya for a speaking tour in America. Mboya was an uknown figure back then and ACOA at first hesitated inviting this minnow to America. They were concerned his lack of name recognition would make it impossible to attract any audience.
In the end, it all worked out and Mboya became the first African leader to be invited to the United States for a speaking tour. Important to note here is that three Kenyans who were already in America worked closely with ACOA to raise funds to support the Mboya trip: Mugo Gacheru, Julius Gikonyo Kiano, and Mungai Njoroge.
All Mboya’s speaking engagements were sold out. And America took note of this man called Mboya.
As a result of the 1956 tour, Mboya and Dr. King got to know each other. It wasn’t strange therefore that in 1959, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, spearheaded by Dr. King, invited Mboya to make a keynote speech at an ‘African Freedom Dinner.’
In his introductory remarks before inviting Mboya to the podium, Dr. King noted:
Our struggle is not an isolated struggle. We are all caught up in an inescapable network of mutuality…. And we want Mr. Mboya to know, as he prepares to go back to Africa, that we go back with him in spirit and with our moral support and even with our financial support. Certainly injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. And so long as problems exist in Africa….we must be concerned about it.”
King meant what he said to Mboya. In America, he was yet to taste the flavor of freedom. In 1957, together with other ACOA members, travelled to Ghana to attend the country’s independence ceremony, and experienced first-hand what it means for people to be free, and liberated. His reaction to Ghanaians’ triumph was outwardly emotional. He wrote about that moment: “Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment”
After the dinner, Tom Mboya requested Dr. King to assist a Kenyan student at Tuskegee Institute called Nicholas Wandia Rabala. King and his church sponsored Rabala.
Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.#HappyMartinLutherKingJrDay