On April 26, President Joe Biden pardoned Abraham Bolden, an 87-year-old who was the first Black man to join the presidential Secret Service security detail.
Bolden’s presidential pardon — for a ginned-up 1964 bribery conviction based on the testimony of witnesses who later admitted to lying — was the first introduction for many Americans to Bolden. The pardon statement characterized him as a brave and noble advocate for racial justice, who spoke out against the racist behavior of other Secret Service agents, and who maintained his innocence during his bribery trials and subsequent prison term.
But neither Biden nor the international news media that briefly picked up on Bolden’s pardon mentioned the explosive core issue: the ex-agent’s role in trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
To this day, Bolden believes that it was his warnings about problems with the Secret Service prior to Kennedy’s death, his knowledge of a conspiracy to kill Kennedy in an early November trip to Chicago, and his efforts to share what he knew with the Warren Commission that led to his being targeted with false charges.
This crucial context was not included in the White House press release, nor in most of the press coverage.
“I think readers don’t understand at all,” Bolden told WhoWhatWhy. “They just understand that I was pardoned.
“They don’t have the details of what occurred and what it had to do with the assassination of President Kennedy, how I was treated, the reason for my incarceration, the effort to declare me insane. Or the fact that I wrote a book that explained everything. That’s not before the public.”
“The Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service”
As a young man, Bolden already showed a proclivity for questioning authority when he sensed injustice.
He studied music at Missouri’s Lincoln University, a historically Black institution founded in 1866 by the men of two “Colored” Civil War infantry regiments to provide education to previously enslaved people. Bolden quickly earned the wrath of the dean with a letter to the school newspaper criticizing Lincoln’s scholarship policy as unduly favoring athletes. The dean threatened to expel him, but Bolden graduated cum laude, third in a class of 97.
Instead of music, he gravitated toward justice. Bolden was the first Black detective appointed to the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. After serving as a highway patrolman in Illinois, Bolden joined the Chicago branch of the Secret Service in 1960.
His fateful encounter with Kennedy came in April 1961, while Bolden was working the bathroom detail at a Chicago convention center. The president, who arrived for a political event, stopped at the restroom door and asked Bolden, “Has there ever been a Negro Secret Service agent on White House detail in Washington, DC?” When Bolden replied no, Kennedy asked him if he would like to be the first.
In 1961, Kennedy appointed the 26-year-old to his Secret Service detail, and, as Bolden recalls, introduced him as “the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service,” after the man who’d broken the Major League Baseball color barrier in the 1940s.
Not Willing to Go Along to Get Along
But not long after joining the White House detail, Bolden began to notice astonishing behavior by his white fellow agents, including breathtaking lapses in security that foreshadowed how Kennedy was left a sitting duck, his Secret Service protection practically nonexistent, when he was shot on November 22, 1963.
Among Bolden’s accusations were that Secret Service agents drank heavily on the job, missed shifts, and used their official vehicles to transport women or visit bars.
His colleagues also demonstrated overtly racist sentiments.
Bolden recalls sitting at his desk one day, receiving a call, and reclining in his chair to answer it. “Looking up I saw, tied to the ceiling light above me, a rope… a hangman’s noose.”
One agent had a bumper sticker on his personal car that called for Southern secession from the US — a potent statement only a few years after federal troops were deployed to Southern cities to enforce the Supreme Court decision integrating schools.
Agents also resented Kennedy assigning Bolden to a plum post aboard the presidential yacht.
Years later, he told NPR:
I heard agents who were on the detail make the statement that they didn’t like the president’s integration policies. They didn’t like his push for equal opportunities for all Americans in the United States, and that if any shots were fired or attempts were made on his life, that they would not do their duties to protect him. And as a result of that, when they failed to perform in Dallas, Texas, and protect our president’s life, then that let me know that what they said were, as a matter of fact, true.
Foreshadowing the Murder in Dallas
The young agent took his concerns to Secret Service Director James Rowley, but they were ignored. Bolden believes that this led to his demotion back to the Chicago field office after only a few months on the White House detail.
In late October 1963, while Bolden was working on counterfeiting cases in the Chicago office, a message came from the FBI headquarters that an assassination plot against JFK involving a squad of Cuban exiles had just been uncovered. Two of the suspects were renting a motel room along the route of an upcoming presidential motorcade in Chicago.
Their plan was foiled when the motel’s manager discovered several high-powered rifles and maps of the president’s November 2 parade route.
The Secret Service arrested the Cubans, who then, astonishingly, were released shortly thereafter, prior to JFK’s scheduled arrival.
According to Bolden, JFK canceled his trip on the morning of November 2 upon receiving a phone call from the agent in charge of the Chicago Secret Service office, warning of the threat — not only from the at-large Cubans, but also, tantalizingly, from a mysterious ex-Marine with remarkable similarities to Lee Harvey Oswald, soon to be the accused assassin of President Kennedy in Dallas.
Silencing the Messenger
After JFK’s murder, Bolden was dumbfounded to learn that this information about an assassination conspiracy — three weeks before November 22, 1963 — was not being investigated by the Warren Commission.
In May of 1964, Bolden was sent to Washington for a stint at the Secret Service training school. Right after lunch on his first day of training, he was pulled out of class and whisked away due to an “emergency” back in Chicago. He sensed something was wrong when he found himself sitting between two agents on the plane. They weren’t traveling companions, he realized; they were escorts. In a car on the way from the Chicago airport to the US attorney’s office, when the driver stopped at a gas station, Bolden asked if he could make a quick call to his wife. His request was denied.
Once in the hands of the Justice Department, he was grilled relentlessly, and eventually arrested on what were later revealed to be trumped up charges: accepting a $50,000 bribe for a government file.
He denied the charges. After his first trial ended on a hung jury, he was found guilty at a second trial and sentenced to six years in prison. He served more than three, with stints in solitary confinement and a psychiatric institution. The main witness who testified against him later recanted his testimony, and others admitted to lying at the behest of the prosecution.
But instead of focusing on his alleged crime, his initial interrogators were more concerned to learn about a phone call they thought he had made to the White House.
Here is a compressed excerpt from Bolden’s 2011 memoir, The Echo from Dealey Plaza:
“Who did you call when you were in Washington last night?”
“I called my wife.”
“You called the White House, didn’t you, Abe? We have the records and we know that you tried to call someone there. Who were you trying to contact?”
As Bolden wrote, he was under surveillance from his fellow agents.
When I’d arrived in Washington, DC, on May 17, Agent McLeod and I had walked to a small coffee shop and had sandwiches. On the way back to the Willard Hotel, where we were staying, I decided to call the White House switchboard. I needed to contact J. Lee Rankin, counsel for the Warren Commission, but I didn’t know how. I needed to let some member of the commission know that I was interested in giving testimony as to my observations and complaints about past Secret Service agent conduct.
Every agent in the Chicago office knew my feelings about the White House detail and that I believed its “protection” of President Kennedy was a complete sham…
So as McLeod and I walked along Pennsylvania Avenue on May 17, I’d stopped at one of two conjoined telephone booths and told him that I was going to call my wife. As I dialed the White House switchboard, McLeod entered the booth next to mine. I quickly suspected his actions when I noticed that I never heard the ding of the coin drop normally heard when a coin was inserted into a pay telephone. McLeod was not making a telephone call at all. He had entered the booth to eavesdrop. I aborted the call, inserted another coin, and dialed the number to my home in Chicago. McLeod was silent in the booth next to mine.
Bolden knew that’s what his interrogators were referring to.
“I know that you’ve heard the old saying that loose lips sink ships,” Inspector McCann added now. “We have to protect ourselves and the Secret Service. We have to know that we can trust the agents who are working for us and that when the chips are down, they will stick together as a team.”
“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “I am a team player. What have I done to make you say that I’m not—”
“Listen, Abe,” McCann interrupted. “Kennedy is dead. We did our best to protect him, and it didn’t work out. We are not going to stand by and let you bury our careers and destroy the Secret Service.”
“So that’s what this is about? Is that why I’m here? What have I done to destroy the Secret Service?”
McCann mopped his sweaty brow. “As I said, loose lips sink ships. That’s the bottom line.”
In order to raise money for his own legal defense, Bolden performed a series of piano recitals throughout Chicago featuring his original works.
His first trial ended in a hung jury. Although key witnesses subsequently admitted lying at the prosecutor’s request during the second trial, Bolden nonetheless was denied a retrial.
While in federal prison, a prisoner pulled a knife on him in a suspicious incident, but it was Bolden who ended up being sent to a psychiatric facility. There, a prison psychiatrist told Bolden what his problem was, as he later recalled.
“I am concerned about your compulsion to delve into things that are not your business,” the shrink told him, “You are going to have to learn to control your compulsions. They are the cause of what I see as anti-government and sociopathic behavior.”
Hospital staff kept him drugged on the antidepressant Elavil, but Bolden devised a system for avoiding his daily medicinal intake: He ate half of his lunch, forced himself to vomit it up, then ate the remaining half for strength.
Bolden was released in 1969 after 39 months, then served two and a half years of probation.
Life afterward was distinctly more quotidian. Bolden worked as a quality control supervisor in the automotive industry for 35 years until his retirement in 2001. He turned inward and focused on work, family, and faith.
He also doggedly worked to clear his name; but new obstacles emerged.
In 1973, when Bolden attempted to gain access to the transcripts of his trials, hearings, and appeals, he was told by the federal court clerk that they could not be located.
Indeed, one month after Bolden requested certified copies, he learned from the National Archives that someone had “checked out” his file and never returned it. Petitions for pardons, first filed in 1974, were summarily denied before reaching the desk of President Gerald Ford — himself a member of the Warren Commission noted for altering the report to support the “single bullet” theory.
In 1978, two investigators from the House Select Committee on Assassinations asked to meet with Bolden to hear his original concerns regarding Kennedy’s protection. The committee’s report concluded that, indeed, the Secret Service had been derelict in the performance of its duties to protect Kennedy. But without the court transcripts, the House was unable to clear Bolden.
In 2011, Bolden published a memoir, The Echo from Dealey Plaza. “I needed that record to show my children and my children’s children, so they could know what their mother and I had endured,” he wrote. “So that they would always know the truth.”
But he still needed to clear his name. A series of pardon requests by Bolden-backers to five successive US presidents over the years fell on deaf ears.
In the interim, his wife Barbara and two of his adult children died (the latter both of cancer last year). When Biden signed the pardon, just Bolden and one son, a college professor in Florida, were left to savor the moment.
Although it is a pardon and not an exoneration — a judge’s official finding that a conviction was wrongful — Bolden’s petition explicitly asked for a pardon based on his innocence and the violation of his civil liberties. Unfortunately, says Cherese Williams, a member of his legal team, the law does not currently provide a means for a pardon to expunge his record and fully clear his name.
In any case, Biden’s decision is indeed historic. For a small army of whistleblowers, researchers, and activists who have labored for decades to force a reckoning with this country’s true history, the Bolden pardon offers just a glimmer of hope that the real story of the broad-daylight murder of a popular, reform-minded world leader with powerful enemies may yet be told.
Says Bolden: “There’s specific information the public should know — and maybe this can put pressure on the US government to release all the remaining Kennedy assassination records.”
(Disclosure: Years ago, WhoWhatWhy called for a pardon, and Bolden made one modest contribution to WhoWhatWhy’s parent nonprofit organization.)
Research Assistance: Stephanie Dukich, Katherine Kemmerer