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It’s long past time to finally clear first White House Black Secret Service agent’s name

South Side resident Abraham Bolden was the first African American to serve on the White House Secret Service detail, until he was charged with a crime after raising questions about the president’s security.

Secret Service Agent Abraham Bolden, then 29, in 1964 as he prepared to appear before a judge after being suspended and charged with trying to sell prosecution documents to a counterfeiting defendant.
Secret Service Agent Abraham Bolden, then 29, in 1964 as he prepared to appear before a judge after being suspended and charged with trying to sell prosecution documents to a counterfeiting defendant.
Sun-Times file

History has taught us that an innocent person can be battered into making false confessions.

And that some of the wrongfully convicted were cheated of their freedom because of official misconduct.

So it always seemed suspicious to me that Abraham Bolden’s plea for a presidential pardon and expungement for a crime he maintains he did not commit has garnered little support.

Bolden was the first African American Secret Service agent to serve on the White House detail.

But, after he complained about agents drinking on the job and showing up unfit for duty and after he threatened to reveal the agency’s shortcomings in protecting the president, he was charged with bribery in a case involving a counterfeiting defendant. After being tried twice, he was convicted in 1966 and was sentenced to six years in federal prison. He served three years and nine months behind bars.

While he could rebuild a quiet life on Chicago’s South Side, Bolden could not give up on seeking justice. He has asserted that his criticism of President John F. Kennedy’s security detail and complaints about omissions in the Warren Commission report on Kennedy’s assassination led to trumped-up charges against him.

He since has sought a pardon from three presidents — Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — and others have worked on his behalf as well.

When I met him in 2016, Bolden spoke proudly of his service on Kennedy’s detail.

“I would rather die than say I did something I didn’t do,” Bolden told me then. “I’m 81 years old now. I think that there is enough proof of my innocence out there. Eventually, whether or not the president acts, my name will be cleared.”

That proved to be overly optimistic.

Abraham Bolden at his South Side home in 2016.
Abraham Bolden at his South Side home in 2016.
Mary Mitchell / Sun-Times

God willing, Bolden will turn 87 on Wednesday. And there is still no pardon in sight.

Meanwhile, thousands of falsely accused people have been exonerated and set free, with 2,737 exonerations nationwide from 1989 through the end of 2020, according to the National Registry of Exonerations, a project of the Newkirk Center for Science & Society at the University of California Irvine, the University of Michigan Law School and Michigan State University College of Law.

Roosevelt Wilson, who chairs the Abraham Bolden Project, has written about Bolden and reached out to elected officials, including Sen. Dick Durbin, on Bolden’s behalf.

While the nation’s leaders have focused on the shameful events that led an angry mob to storm the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, there’s been zero interest in digging for the truth about Bolden’s accusations.

“As I sat listening to President Biden’s speech today, I was moved when he stated, ‘Great nations don’t bury the truth; they face up to them,’ ” Wilson wrote. “I immediately thought: President Biden walk the road never traveled. Fourteen times an elected president has taken the oath of office since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and none of them had the moral courage to excavate the truth and expunge the record of Abraham Bolden.”

According to the national registry’s report: “Defendants exonerated in 2020 lost a total of 1,737 years, an average of 13.4 years per exoneree.” There were 87 exonerations — more than two-thirds of the cases, including 50 homicide cases — that were due to official misconduct.”

Bolden chronicled his journey from a “first” to a “disgraced” Secret Service agent in his 2008 memoir “The Echo from Dealey Plaza.”

It is an incredible story of corruption and racism in a government agency that wasn’t willing to make room for a man who honored integrity.

Wilson, who maintains close contact with Bolden, plans a birthday celebration for him.

There’s no question about what Bolden wants most for a birthday present.

As he told me in 2016: “What I want is a pardon and expungement. I want that conviction taken off my record. That is what I want.”

With help from our elected officials in Congress, we could end this injustice before it is too late.