FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Now a true-life take of intrigue from the first African-American Secret Service agent on the presidential detail. Abraham Bolden was born into a poor family in East St. Louis, Illinois, got his higher education and became an Illinois State Trooper. After a few years, he joined the United States Secret Service. Then in 1961, a chance meeting with President John F. Kennedy changed his life forever.
He chronicles his experiences, on-the-job discrimination, and later a conviction on bribery charges in a new memoir, "The Echo from Dealey Plaza." Abraham Bolden took me back to the day he was asked to join the White House duty.
Mr. ABRAHAM BOLDEN (Former Secret Service Agent): I was in Chicago, stationed as a Secret Service agent. The president was on his way to make a visit to Chicago on April the 28th, 1961.
Now, as a new Secret Service agent, I was given a detail in the washroom in the basement of the place where he was speaking, the McCormick Place. And at the time that I was given that detail, the agents in the office who were gathered to do the protection for that particular event all snickered, and they laughed and says well, he's got the toilet detail, so to speak.
But I went on and without gripe, you know, anything, I accepted. And I went down to McCormick Place, searched the restroom, made sure that it was secure and everything, and I stood there.
Well, as fate would have it, I heard the motorcade as it pulled up, and all of a sudden, I looked at the top of the stairs, and here comes the president. The first thing he wants to do when he arrived at McCormick Place was go to the washroom, and there I stood.
And he asked me a question with a slight smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. He said are you one of Mayor Daley's finest, or are you a Secret Service agent? And I answered, I'm a Secret Service agent, Mr. President. And he looked at me, and he says - one of the other agents behind him told him my name, said that's Mr. Bolden. He's an agent stationed here in Chicago.
The president said Mr. Bolden, has there ever been a negro on the White House detail protecting and guarding the president of the United States? I said not to my knowledge, Mr. President. He said, would you like to be the first one? I said yes, sir, Mr. President.
And he said, I'll be looking forward to seeing you in Washington, D.C., and that's how I happened to be appointed to the White House detail.
CHIDEYA: You had that moment, this incredible moment, and then you write very early in the narrative, in the book, about an agent who was not so friendly. You describe him saying I'm going to tell you something, and I don't want you to ever forget it. You're a (censored). You were born a (censored), and when you die, you'll still be a (censored). So act like one.
What did you really face when it came to dealing with your colleagues?
Mr. BOLDEN: The majority of the Secret Service agents were very acceptable of me coming in to the White House detail. There were only a few who were dead-set against any integration policies or equal-opportunity policies that were being enforced by President Kennedy, giving equal opportunity to all people, regardless of race, religion, color or ethnic background.
And I think that President Kennedy was serious, and he was doing these things not for a political purpose, but because he felt it in his heart that America could be a much better place if we didn't have all of these divisions and restrictions on people of ethnic backgrounds and minorities.
So now I foresaw that the weaknesses in the protection on President Kennedy would allow his assassination if any serious attempt would be made against his life, and I did everything in my power to stem that threat against our young president.
CHIDEYA: What threats did you hear against the president's life and when?
Mr. BOLDEN: We had many threats. It was just like a thunderstorm of threats during the early part of 1963, going in to November. As a matter of fact, in Miami, Florida, we were told at a record meeting here in Chicago that a tape-recording had been made of some Cubans who were discussing how they were going to assassinate the president.
Now this tape-recording was made just about three or four weeks before the president was actually assassinated, and they discussed on this tape that the president would be assassinated with a high-powered rifle. The Secret Service was very aware of these threats against the president.
Now once that the president was assassinated, I didn't find any interest in arresting any of these people who were plotting to assassinate the president of the United States, and that disturbed me greatly.
CHIDEYA: You write in the book: Every agent in the Chicago office knew my feelings about the White House detail and that I believed its - and then this is in quotes - "protection" of President Kennedy was a complete sham. What do you mean by that?
Mr. BOLDEN: Absolutely. 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 first 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.
CHIDEYA: You talk about your view, that there were at least three groups trying to get at Kennedy, the Cuban emigre population - and I'm quoting you here - who resented him - this is what you say - for his ineffectiveness with Castro. The mafia, and people who were racist or otherwise ideologically opposed to him. Who do you think killed the president?
Mr. BOLDEN: Well, it's difficult to speculate just who killed the president because, as I said, there were so many conspiracies that were going on prior to November the 22nd. Now as for my - just my own personal opinion, I believe there was a conspiracy to assassinate the president, and the assassination review board, and also the congressional committee who investigated assassinations, agreed with me that President Kennedy was probably killed as a result of a conspiracy.
Now they couldn't identify the conspirators because the Secret Service and the FBI had taken means and measures to obfuscate, actually, the investigations that were going on prior to the assassination of President Kennedy.
CHIDEYA: At the end of the book, you say that the haunting echo of this experience has been quieted. Do you have a sense of peace now about the path your life has gone?
Mr. BOLDEN: I have a sense of peace in that I have alerted the American people, through "The Echo from Dealey Plaza," of some things that I feel that the American people are entitled to know. And then they can make a fair judgment based upon that book, "The Echo from Dealey Plaza," and I hope that they will come down firmly on my side because I tried to be fair in my presentation of both sides of the case.
CHIDEYA: Mr. Bolden, thank you so much.
Mr. BOLDEN: Thank you for interviewing me.
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CHIDEYA: Former Secret Service agent Abraham Bolden. His new memoir is called "The Echo from Dealey Plaza," but the story doesn't end there. After President John F. Kennedy's assassination, Bolden was arrested on bribery charges, convicted and spent six years in jail. To this day, he maintains his innocence.
You can hear him tell us that part of his life story on our Web site, nprnewsandnotes.org. And that's our show for today. Thank you for sharing your time with us. To listen to the show or subscribe to our podcast, visit our Web site: nprnewsandnotes.org. TO join the conversation or sign up for our newsletter, visit our blog at nprnewsandviews.org.