Secret service agent remembers JFK's impact on African-Americans

Chicago, IL – Abraham Bolden didn’t spend long protecting President John F. Kennedy as a Secret Service agent, but Kennedy’s  impact on his life has lasted a lifetime.

The 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination has presented Bolden an opportunity to reflect on his historic time in the United States Secret Service.

In 1961, he became the first African-American agent assigned to White House Detail. He was personally selected to the post after a chance meeting with the president at a Chicago convention hall bathroom.

“I just felt so awed,” said Bolden, now 78. “I was so impressed. I felt like a miracle had happened.” 

Bolden joined the Secret Service in 1960, after several years as an Illinois State Trooper. Before that, he was the first African-American detective for the National Pinkerton Detective Agency.

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Bolden said his time in the Secret Service was special because of who the person Kennedy was.

“Here’s a man I had thought so much of when he was running for president,” Bolden said. “Because the things he said and the improvements he wanted to make resounded with me deep in my heart, as it did with many African-American people.”

Bolden said Kennedy represented a chance for America to live up to its promise of equality for all.

“We loved President Kennedy because of the [potential] we saw and the fairness that he spoke about and the love for America he had,” Bolden said. “He just seemed like a very rich man who was out of place who should have been among us – a leader among our people.”

Kennedy introduced Bolden to family, friends and members of his administration. He talked to him with respect, Bolden said.

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But Bolden left the White House detail after just 30 days. He said the reckless behavior of some of his fellow agents and racist attitudes and comments proved too much to endure.

He didn’t feel the President had the best protection possible. He didn’t feel welcome in his own agency. He returned to the Chicago field office and began investigating counterfeit cases.

On November 22, 1963, he heard news he couldn’t believe.

“I thought so much of President Kennedy and it hurt me so much, when that bullet struck him down in Dallas, Texas,” Bolden said. “I felt it. I felt it.”

“I was devastated,” Bolden continued. “We had lost a real person who believed in equal opportunity and justice for all people, regardless of race, creed or color or nationality or religious influence […] We lost a person who really cared, who had empathy for the people, the little people.”

Bolden’s life and career in the Secret Service is documented in his 2008 book, The Echo from Dealey Plaza, which he wrote with the help of his late wife Barbara.

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“I was not just there as a lone ranger,” Bolden said. “I represented the whole of the Negro race at the time and I realized that.”

Kennedy gave him that opportunity. He called Bolden the ‘Jackie Robinson’ of the Secret Service – and Bolden, who is retired and living in Chicago, will never forget who he calls the ‘People’s President.’

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Follow’s Correspondent Todd Johnson on Twitter @rantoddj