Nearly 60 years after his conviction on what he claimed were racist and retaliatory federal charges, the first Black U.S. Secret Service agent assigned to a presidential detail has been pardoned by President Joe Biden.
Chicagoan Abraham Bolden, 87, who served on the security detail for President John F. Kennedy, was among 78 people granted pardons or commutations of their sentences on Tuesday as part of Biden’s first use of his executive clemency powers.
Bolden, who’d warned about lax security practices around the president, was charged in 1964 with attempting to sell a copy of a Secret Service file to a ring of counterfeiters. His first trial ended in a hung jury, and after he was convicted in a retrial, key witnesses said they lied at the prosecutor’s request.
A longtime resident of Chicago’s South Side, Bolden served about three years in federal prison. He has long maintained his innocence and wrote a book in which he argued he was targeted for speaking out against racist and unprofessional behavior in the Secret Service.
Bolden on Tuesday recalled when Kennedy asked him to join his security detail. He said he was denied to see the president but Kennedy approached him, asking if there had ever been a “Negro” on the White House detail.
“When we were in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, he treated me like a son,” Bolden told reporters at his home on Tuesday.
He also recalled the head of the White House detail’s racism, calling Bolden the N-word and being bothered by the way Kennedy treated him, Bolden said.
He said President Kennedy “meant to bring American people together.”
“He felt that that was his mission,” Bolden said. “But he also understood that his life was in jeopardy. I could see it in his eyes. He was afraid of being assassinated.”
Bolden said he swore to give his life for the president and he did, but he said his experience helped him gain spirituality.
“I was in prison but prison never got in me,” Bolden said. “I used that time to study, make myself approved in the eyes of God and learn something where humanity could progress.”
In a statement announcing the clemencies, Biden said, “America is a nation of laws and second chances, redemption, and rehabilitation.”
“Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates, and law enforcement leaders agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer and stronger communities,” the statement read.
In a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on Bolden’s Facebook page, Bolden said he got the call about the pardon early in the morning and accepted the “justifiable action by President Joe Biden with sincere gratitude.”
He also thanked his family for “giving me the will to fight through some of the darkest days of my life.”
“While initial attempts to affirm my innocence were unsuccessful, almost 60 years later, my victory was won,” he wrote. “It is my hope that my pardon will inspire others to continue to fight for justice and to stand on the truth.”
Bolden’s story was featured in a 2010 Chicago Tribune column by Dawn Turner Trice, including his account of how a chance run-in with Kennedy in Chicago led to him being promoted to Washington to join the president’s protective team.
In April 1961, Bolden was working as a Secret Service agent based in Chicago and had been assigned to guard a cordoned-off bathroom at the McCormick Place convention center when Kennedy arrived for a political event. He said the president stopped at the restroom door and asked him, “Has there ever been a Negro Secret Service agent on White House detail in Washington, D.C.?’”
Bolden said, “I told him, ‘Not to my knowledge, Mr. President.’ And he asked me if I would like to be the first, and I told him, ‘Yes, sir, Mr. President.’”
Two months later, Bolden, who was 26 at the time, was sent to Washington, where he said he immediately “ran into some harsh racism” among the ranks. He said he asked to get off of the detail after enduring racial slurs from fellow agents and small nooses were left around his workplace. He also said he was shocked by the lax security around the president, including agents who womanized and drank on duty. He complained to superiors, and that is when he became a target.
After Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas in 1963, Bolden said he’d planned to try to talk to someone on the Warren Commission, but instead he was suddenly escorted back to Chicago, where he was charged with soliciting a $50,000 bribe from the boss of a ring of counterfeiters.
“The aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination led to events that would implicate me in a case of bribery,” Bolden said in his statement Tuesday. “After two high-profile trials, held before a trial judge who told the deliberating jury to find me guilty, I was convicted and served a six-year sentence.”
Bolden, who was released after serving about 39 months behind bars, always maintained his innocence. He twice asked President Richard Nixon for a pardon but was denied, and his appeals to a succession of presidents over the years were met by silence from the White House.
Bolden, meanwhile, stayed in Chicago, working as an automotive quality control supervisor before retiring in 2001. His wife, Barbara, who is now deceased, convinced him to write his memoir, “The Echo From Dealey Plaza,” and stood by him throughout his ordeal, he said.
“She held our family together during these tragic times,” Bolden’s statement read.
Chicago Tribune’s Stephanie Casanova contributed.