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Wednesday, March 19, 2008 01:39 am

Echoes of injustice

An Illinois author discusses his experiences in JFK’s White House as the first black Secret Service agent

Abraham Bolden
Untitled Document In April 1961, John F. Kennedy came to Chicago to pay tribute to Mayor Richard Daley, who just a few months earlier had delivered Illinois to the Democrat in the presidential race.  Abraham Bolden, then a rookie agent assigned to the Chicago field office of the Secret Service, remembers his chance encounter with the new president. “Has there ever been a Negro agent on the Secret Service White House detail?” Bolden recalls the president asking. “Not to my knowledge, Mr. President,” Bolden responded. “Would you like to be the first?”
“Yes sir, Mr. President,” Bolden said, not bothering to hide his enthusiasm. One of six children, born in East St. Louis to a good-natured mother and a stern father who worked two jobs, Bolden was offered an opportunity to become, as the president said, “the Jackie Robinson” of the White House protection detail. Bolden reported for his first shift of White House duty at midnight on June 5, 1961. He came with high hopes; he left disillusioned.

No stranger to racial prejudice, Bolden was prepared to confront bigotry from some of his new colleagues. However, he admits that he was somewhat taken aback by how quickly and openly fellow agents made their racist feelings known — especially “in the White House of John Kennedy, the man who never missed a chance to demand publicly and forcefully that racism and bigotry be eliminated throughout America,” he writes in his recently released memoir, The Echo from Dealey Plaza. “I suppose the Secret Service manual didn’t cover this kind of thing.”
But what surprised Bolden most was the slapdash attitude toward security by the very men who’d sworn to take a bullet for the president. Bolden writes how many agents were more concerned with carousing, womanizing, and drinking, often while still on duty, than with protecting Kennedy. Bolden declined an invitation to remain at the White House after his month-long probationary period ended. He chose instead to return to Chicago with his three children and wife, Barbara, his unwavering source of strength, whose features he describes as a cross between those of Jackie Kennedy and jazz singer and actress Lena Horne. In his exit interview, Bolden told a senior Secret Service official about the many confrontations he had with white agents, as well as his perception of the detail’s lackadaisical approach to guarding the president. One month later Bolden was back in the Chicago field office, where he investigated counterfeiting operations, mostly on the South Side, and was regarded by his superiors as the office’s top agent. He shared with other agents his concern that the White House detail’s lax security put the president’s safety in jeopardy. By the fall of 1963, reports had begun circulating throughout the service about threats on the president’s life from what Bolden describes as “Cuban dissidents” and “right-wing Southerners.”
Kennedy had planned to visit Chicago for a football game in early November, but the trip was called off when a woman who ran a boardinghouse on the North Side found a pair of high-powered rifles equipped with scopes in a room being rented to two men she described as Hispanic. Days later, on Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was killed in Dallas. In May 1964, Bolden flew to Washington, D.C., for training. He planned to contact members of the Warren Commission, known formally as the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President Kennedy, to offer his testimony on events he witnessed during his brief stint in the White House. He never got his chance to testify. Bolden was rushed back to Chicago, where he was promptly arrested and accused of trying to sell a Secret Service file for $50,000 to a man who was under investigation for running a counterfeiting ring.
Bolden, 29 years old at the time, believed that the agency was trying to stop him from blowing the whistle — a move, he knew, that could destroy the Secret Service. After two trials — the first ended with a hung jury — Bolden was convicted and sent to prison. The counterfeiter, the agency’s star witness, later recanted, saying during his own criminal trial that a U.S. attorney had coerced him into lying in Bolden’s case. When pressed by a panel of judges about the counterfeiter’s claim that the attorney had suborned his perjured testimony, the government prosecutor took the Fifth.
Nevertheless, Bolden went on to serve a sentence of three years and three months in federal penitentiaries in Indiana, Kansas, and Missouri, including a short stint in a psychiatric ward for exhibiting what prison officials described as “paranoid behavior.”
Bolden was paroled in 1969, three months shy of the completion of his full sentence, and returned to civilian life. He held supervisory positions in quality control for two industrial-products companies before retiring in 2001. He has always maintained his innocence, petitioning the Justice Department for a pardon in 1974 and twice appealing his case to the Supreme Court.
The high court declined to hear Bolden’s case in 1966, despite Justice William O. Douglas’ issuing a brief indicating that the court should hear the case because of “substantial violations” of Bolden’s constitutional rights. The Supreme Court again denied his petition in 1997.
Bolden, now 73, describes the story he outlines in The Echo from Dealey Plaza as “rather tragic.”
“Here I was, an idealistic young man, trying to advance as far as I could in government service. I would have liked to have stayed in government service and been promoted to possibly some supervisory position or gone off into another government field such as diplomatic services. It was very disappointing that these things did not occur,” Bolden tells Illinois Times. He adds that he no longer harbors ill will toward any of the people who helped put him behind bars.  “I’ve pretty much gotten over the resentment,” Bolden says. “It’s more now a question of informing the public of how they affected me.”
Even though his troubles followed his departure from the White House, Bolden isn’t convinced that things would have turned out another way — for himself or Kennedy — had he remained.
“Because I was steadfast against some of the conduct that some of the agents were engaged in, I probably would have alienated more agents than I did by leaving. I was highly critical of the agents and how they were disorganized in their efforts to protect President John F. Kennedy,” Bolden says. Nor did he bother to alert Kennedy directly. “Well, you know, the president was engaged in so many worldwide activities at that time, I thought it would be best not to approach the president with some complaint like that,” he says. “I’d rather go through the chain of command. I didn’t think that the proper avenue would be to walk right into the president’s office and make such a complaint.”
Bolden’s wife, Barbara, died unexpectedly in 2005. She did live long enough to read the finished version of Echo, which took him two years to write. Bolden says the process — in particular, reliving his confinement in the prison mental ward and looking back on the day Kennedy was murdered while riding in a motorcade in Dallas’ Dealey Plaza — was extremely emotional.
“Going back was a little bit more emotional than the actual event,” Bolden says. His natural even temperament, combined with his numerous years of law enforcement training, enabled Bolden to hold his anger in check as a young man, he explains. “I made a conscious effort,” he says. “It called for a lot of thinking and reflection and reasoning and I had to note at all times where I was and what was I trying to accomplish.”

Bolden believes that the nation as a whole has made some advances over the past 40 years in terms of improving race relations.
“We’re moving toward a new day. A new development is coming, especially among the young people. They really want to see a change and I believe that it’s going to get better. And I just think and hope and pray that things do get better and that all people who are oppressed in this country can have equal opportunity in rights and justice as all American citizens,” he says.
The same might not be said of his former employer, however. In 2000, 10 African-American Secret Service agents filed a lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which had oversight of the service before that authority was transferred to the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
According to court documents, the plaintiffs assert that with respect to black special agents the Secret Service has “engaged in a pattern and practice” of racial discrimination in promotions, offering career-enhancing opportunities, transfers, undercover assignments (one complainant submits that black agents are presumed able to communicate in “street talk”), hiring, testing, awards, bonuses, and performance evaluations. They also allege a hostile work environment. Forty-eight more black agents have joined the class-action suit, which is pending in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Bolden, who still lives in Chicago, is not a party to the suit. “I don’t know what their manual says now in regard to the discrimination issue,” he says. “But it looks like they’re still on the same road.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com


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