By Frederick H. Lowe
– Abraham Bolden Sr., the first African-American Secret Service agent assigned to the White House detail, still finds humor in his life, despite having faced formidable challenges that would have defeated a lesser man.
Bolden served three years in prison after being convicted of giving government documents to a known criminal in exchange for $50,000.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Chicago retaliated against Bolden after he complained to no avail to his Secret Service bosses and later to the public that Secret Service agents failed to protect President John F. Kennedy on the day he was assassinated because some of them considered the President a ‘nigger lover’ who was changing the country.
Some of Bolden’s white Secret Service colleagues fabricated the charge against him as part of an elaborate cover-up that followed JFK’s assassination in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. He details the evidence in his book, The Echo from Dealey Plaza: The True Story of The first African American on the White House Secret Service Detail and His Quest for Justice after the Assassination of JFK. The book was published in 2008.
Now The Funny Part
Bolden was serving part of his prison sentence at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., when he wrote John N. Mitchell, who was President Nixon’s Attorney General from 1969 to 1972, seeking help.
Mitchell did not answer Bolden, but circumstances changed dramatically for both Bolden and Mitchell. Bolden was released from prison in September 1969. Six years later, Mitchell took up residence in the big house. In 1975, Mitchell was sentenced to 2½ years to eight years in prison, having been convicted for conspiracy, obstruction of justice and perjury. Mitchell was sentenced to serve his sentence at Maxwell Air Force Base.
Mitchell Is Assigned To The Same Prison Bed Bolden Had Earlier
“He was assigned to bed 813, the same bed I had when I was there,” Bolden said laughing. Bolden also sought help from Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. to get his federal conviction expunged.
“Jackson was my congressman, but I never heard back from him,” Bolden said. Jackson is no longer a congressman. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to misusing campaign funds. And guess where he’s serving his time? It’s Maxwell Air Force Base, although his bed number is not known.
The visitors in Bolden’s living room burst into laughter.
An Old Man Who Won’t Be Silenced
Bolden is 79 and he walks with the assistance of a metal walker. He has suffered three heart attacks and he endures severe back pain. He lives in a brick bungalow on a quiet street in Chicago, where all of his neighbors know who he is.
Bolden has a kind brown face, a strong voice, an uncanny memory for dates and names and a sense of fairness towards his fellow Secret Service agents despite their liberal use of the word “nigger.”
During an interview with The NorthStar News & Analysis, Bolden sat in a straight-back metal chair next to a black couch arranged with plaques he has received over the years for his speaking engagements promoting his book. Propped in the middle of the couch is a large, framed color photo of President John F. Kennedy.
Bolden is now seeking to persuade President Barack Obama to expunge his felony conviction based on the clear documentation detailed in his book that he was framed by Secret Service agents in the Chicago Bureau for a crime he did not commit. The link to the petition is www.petitionspot.com/petitions/abrahamwbolden.
It is not clear what President Obama will do or if he will do anything at all.
Meeting President Kennedy
President Kennedy met Bolden at the door of the men’s room at McCormick Place, Chicago’s convention center that borders Lake Michigan.
Bolden was guarding the men’s restroom on April 28, 1961, so it could only be used by top political officials. It was a job normally assigned to a uniformed Chicago policeman, but his fellow Secret Service agents wanted to demean Bolden by assigning him the task.
“It was very difficult because I was African-American. I wasn’t wearing a uniform and many people did not believe I was a Secret Service agent,” he said.
Bolden was standing at his assigned post when he heard a rumble of footsteps coming down the stairs.
Leading the group was President Kennedy, followed by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner and Ill. Sen. Paul Douglas and Chicago Congressman William L. Dawson.
“I stepped aside. I didn’t say hello, Mr. President,” Bolden recalled. But President Kennedy followed Bolden and asked him if he was a Chicago police officer or a Secret Service agent.
Bolden told the president he was a Secret Service agent. “Has there been a Secret Service agent assigned on the White House detail?” President Kennedy asked. “Not to my knowledge,” Bolden answered. The President asked Bolden if he would like to be the first. The president shook Bolden’s hand and cameramen snapped photographs, but those photos have since disappeared. “The Secret Service did not want me to be seen with the President,” he said.
President Kennedy arranged for Bolden to be assigned to the White House Secret Service detail. The President told Pierre Salinger, White House press secretary, that Bolden was the Jackie Robinson of the U.S. Secret Service.
Being The First Is Sometimes The Worst Position To Be In
“He [President Kennedy] knew what I would face,” Bolden said.
Robinson, the first African-American to play Major League Baseball in the modern era, showed that there are both advantages and disadvantages to being first.
You’re remembered in history books, but at the time, breaking new ground, isn’t easy. Philadelphia Phillies Manager Ben Chapman repeatedly called Robinson a “nigger,” when he was at bat or when he took the field. And Phillies General Manger Herb Penncock, warned the Brooklyn Dodgers, Robinson’s team, not to bring that ‘nigger’ to town.
The movies depict Secret Service agents as guys with short haircuts, wearing white shirts, skinny ties, sun glasses and neatly pressed suits, but many of them could have easily changed their white shirts for the Ku Klux Klan’s white sheets. When they weren’t acting like Klansmen in suits, they were getting drunk and picking up women, something we hear about even today.
Some of Bolden’s fellow white agents in the Chicago office hung a noose above his desk. Maurice Martineau, special agent in charge of the Chicago office, joked about it. Martineau and Bolden did not get along.
‘You’re a Nigger So Act Like One!’
When the Kennedy family vacationed at Hyannis Port, Mass., the agents all lived together in a house on the compound. As the agents were driving to the compound, Secret Service Agent Bob Foster saw a Black woman in an Air Force uniform. “Thar goes a nigger,” he shouted before realizing that Bolden was in the car. Foster covered his mouth. “I was there, but they did not see me,” he said of the other agents.
Agent Harvey Henderson, however, did not shy away from calling Bolden vicious names. Henderson said, “‘I am going to tell you something, and I don’t want you to ever forget it,” Henderson said. “You were born a nigger, and when you die, you’ll still be a nigger. You will always be nothing but a nigger. So act like one! ‘“
It was at the Kennedy compound that Bolden learned how much some of the agents hated the President, calling him a “nigger lover” who was pushing integration on the country. “They wanted Lyndon Johnson, who was Kennedy’s vice president in the White House, because he was a Southerner.
It was a turbulent period in the nation’s history. Blacks demonstrated to integrate stores, lunch counters and better-paying jobs. In return, they were being met by police with water hoses, billy clubs, snarling dogs and angry white crowds.
Some Secret Service Agents Hated Kennedy
Bolden was sitting on the porch of the Hyannis Port house where the agents were living. The others were sitting at a table inside the house drinking beer and smoking, but Bolden could hear their conversations.
Some of them said they would never take a bullet for President Kennedy because they hated him, which shocked Bolden. “It was our Congressional responsibility to protect the President,” he said.
Should some of us worry about President Barack Obama’s safety? After all, Robert Copeland, a Wolfeboro, N.H., police commissioner, recently called the President a ‘nigger.’ Bolden nodded his head that we should be concerned for Obama’s safety.
Bolden remained on the White House detail only 30 days. “I did not want to go to Dallas because I feared something would happen,” said Bolden, explaining that a month before President Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, United Nations Ambassador Adlai Stevenson II had been physically attacked in Dallas by right-wing extremists. Stevenson was serving as the governor of Illinois at the time.
Secret Service ID Lost At A Strip Club
The night before President Kennedy was assassination, Bolden said an unnamed Secret Service agent lost his ID at either a Dallas or Fort Worth, Texas, strip club.
The lost ID played a big role in the President’s murder, Bolden said. A Dallas sheriff’s deputy stopped an unnamed man on the grassy knoll in Dallas, but the man showed the deputy a Secret Service badge. In January 1964, for an unexplained reason, the Secret Service replaced all of the badges with a slight change in wording.
“The Secret Service knew a badge was missing, but they [Secret Service] covered it up,” he said.
Bolden doesn’t think Lee Harvey Oswald fired the fatal shot killing JFK. He believes there were two other shooters, one inside Dal-Tex Building, a seven-story building, across the street from the Texas School Book Depository, where Oswald was located. The third shooter was on the grassy knoll. Oswald, however, did not fire the fatal shot, and he did not know about the existence of the other two shooters, Bolden said.
Abraham Zapruder, who filmed President Kennedy’s assassination, rented offices in the Dal-Tex Building. Several witnesses said they heard several shots being fired from the Dal-Tex Building at President Kennedy’s open limousine.
Credible Evidence President Kennedy Was To Be Killed In Chicago Or Miami
Before President Kennedy’s assassination, the Secret Service had credible evidence that a gunman would attempt to kill the President either in Chicago or Miami, Bolden said. The Chicago office of the Secret Service never acted on the threats, Bolden said.
After President Kennedy’s assassination, the information was rewritten to show that there was a threat to President Lyndon Johnson, who succeeded President Kennedy.
Bolden, who was 29 and idealistic, went public with his concern that the Secret Service did not adequately protect President Kennedy. He thought the truth would win out, but bureaucracy didn’t seek the truth; it sought to protect itself. The Secret Service concocted the charges that Bolden was planning to sell government documents for $50,000 to Joseph Spagnoli, a known criminal who lived in Villa Park, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
A Witness Admits He Lied To Convict Bolden
Bolden’s first trial, which began May 28, 1964, ended in a mistrial although U.S. District Court Judge J. Sam Perry, a native of Carbon Hill, Ala., and a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, stood up in front of the jury before the trial had ended and told jurors that Bolden was guilty. He became so angry and frustrated with Judge Perry’s unfairness that he seriously considered killing the judge and then himself, Bolden told The NorthStar News & Analysis.
Judge Perry also lectured Bolden’s attorney, George Howard, berating him in front of the jury like he was a first-year law student. Howard and Bolden recently met for first time since 1966, although they live only a few miles from each other.
During the second trial, which ended Aug. 11, 1964, Spagnoli admitted that Deputy U.S. Attorney Richard T. Sikes told him to lie in order to convict Bolden. Sikes pled the Fifth Amendment.
Sikes’ boss was Chicago U.S. Attorney Edward V. Hanrahan, who would later be elected mostly by Black voters Cook County, Ill., State’s Attorney.
As State’s Attorney, Hanrahan would become infamous by ordering police assigned to his office to raid on Dec. 4, 1969, the West Side apartment of Fred Hampton, Chicago’s Black Panther Party leader, and Mark Clark. Police fired nearly 90 shots, killing Hampton and Clark while they were sleeping. Relatives of both men sued Hanrahan and the police in trial presided over Judge Perry, who dismissed all of the charges. The families appealed, and a higher court reversed Perry’s decision.
Spagnoli’s admission did not make a difference to the all-white jury. Judge Perry locked Howard and Bolden out of the Dirksen Federal Building, where the trial was being held, while the jury was deliberating. Federal prosecutors and the judge, however, remained inside.
The jury found Bolden guilty and Judge Perry sentenced him to six years in prison. He served part of his sentence at Fort Leavenworth, one of the country’s toughest prisons.
An Offer Of A Job And A Typewriter To Tell His Own Story
Not everyone wore blinders when it came to Chicago’s style of justice. Bolden worked at Ingersoll Products, and the company’s president wrote a letter to Judge Perry saying the firm wanted to hire Bolden as a permanent supervisor.
William Wagnet mailed a check for more than $2,300 and a typewriter to Bolden, telling him to tell his side of the story.
The treatment he suffered put an end to his youthful idealism. Bolden said if he had to do it all over, he would do it differently. “ I would just go to the press with my concerns,” he said. Bolden was 30 when he went on trial.
Judge Perry died in 1984. Bolden said that while he would not desecrate his grave, he would like to find it to make sure Perry is dead.
Though Bolden wrote his autobiography, it was his late wife, Barbara, who pushed him to tell his story. She asked their son to help his father buy a computer because he did not like writing on a typewriter.
When Bolden complained that he could not remember everything, she produced every letter he had written to her and every letter the Secret Service had written to him.
The book is dedicated to her, their children, grandchildren, his parents and friends who believed his story.
– (Special from The NorthStar News & Analysis)
This article originally published in the May 26, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.