Nearly 60 years after his conviction on what he said were racist and retaliatory federal charges, the first black US Secret Service agent assigned to a presidential detail has been pardoned by President Joe Biden.
Chicagoan Abraham Bolden, 87, who served on President John F. Kennedy’s security detail, was among 78 people granted pardons or commutations of sentence Tuesday in Biden’s first use of his executive clemency powers.
Bolden, who had warned of lax security practices around the president, was accused in 1964 of trying to sell a copy of a Secret Service file to a ring of forgers. His first trial ended in a hung jury, and after he was convicted in a retrial, key witnesses testified that they lied at the prosecutor’s request.
A longtime resident of Chicago’s South End, Bolden spent about three years in federal prison. He has long maintained his innocence and wrote a book in which he claimed he was targeted for exposing racist and unprofessional behavior in the secret service.
Bolden recalled Tuesday when Kennedy asked him to join his security detail. He said he had been denied to see the president, but Kennedy approached him, asking if there had ever been a ghostwriter 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 White House retail chief’s racism, calling Bolden the N-word and being bothered by the way Kennedy treated him, Bolden said.
He said President Kennedy “intended to bring the American people together.”
“He felt that was his mission,” Bolden said. “But he also understood that his life was in danger. I could see it in his eyes. He was afraid of being murdered.
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 jail but jail never got into me,” Bolden said. “I used that time to study, to get myself approved in the sight of God, and to learn something where humanity could progress.”
In a statement announcing the clemency, Biden said, “America is a nation of laws and second chances, of redemption and rehabilitation.”
“Elected officials on both sides of the aisle, faith leaders, civil rights advocates and law enforcement officials agree that our criminal justice system can and should reflect these core values that enable safer communities and stronger,” the statement said.
In a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on Bolden’s Facebook page, Bolden said he received the pardon call early in the morning and accepted President Joe Biden’s “justifiable action with sincere gratitude.”
He also thanked his family for “giving me the willpower to fight through some of the darkest days of my life.”
“While early attempts to assert my innocence failed, nearly 60 years later my victory has been won,” he wrote. “I hope my forgiveness will inspire others to continue to fight for justice and stand on the truth.”
Bolden’s story was featured in a 2010 Chicago Tribune column by Dawn Turner Trice, including her account of how a chance encounter with Kennedy in Chicago led to him being promoted to Washington to join the team. protection of the president.
In April 1961, Bolden was working as a Chicago-based Secret Service agent and had was assigned to guard a bathroom cordoned off at the McCormick Place convention center when Kennedy arrived for a political event. He said the president stopped at the bathroom door and asked him, “Has there ever been a black Secret Service agent on White House details in Washington, DC?”
Bolden said: “I said to him, ‘Not to my knowledge, Mr. President.’ And he asked me if I wanted to be first, and I said, ‘Yes, sir, sir.’ »
Two months later, Bolden, who was 26 at the time, was sent to Washington, where he said he immediately “ran into severe racism” within the ranks. He said he asked to leave the detail after he suffered racial slurs from fellow officers and small nooses were left around his workplace. He also said he was shocked by the lax security around the president, including officers running and drinking on duty. He complained to his superiors, and that’s when he became a target.
After Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, Bolden said he planned to try to speak to someone from the Warren Commission, but instead was suddenly driven back to Chicago, where he was was accused of soliciting a $50,000 bribe from the boss of a ring. of counterfeiters.
“The aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination has led to events that would implicate me in a corruption case,” Bolden said in his statement Tuesday. “After two high-profile trials, held before a trial judge who told the deliberating jury to convict me, I was found guilty and served a six-year sentence.”
Bolden, who was released after serving approximately 39 months behind bars, has always maintained his innocence. He twice asked President Richard Nixon for forgiveness, but was refused, and his appeals to a succession of presidents over the years were met with silence from the White House.
Bolden, meanwhile, remained in Chicago, working as an automotive quality control supervisor before retiring in 2001. His late wife, Barbara, convinced him to write his memoir, “The Echo From Dealey Plaza,” and supported him throughout his ordeal, he says.
“She held our family together during these tragic times,” Bolden’s statement read.
Stephanie Casanova of the Chicago Tribune contributed.