BRATTLEBORO — There could be no predicting the consequences of a 13-year-old junior high school student hearing a public address announcement stating that President John F. Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas, Texas. I was captivated by the images on television from Friday afternoon, Nov. 22, 1963, through the president's burial on Nov. 25. The haunting cadence of the funeral dirge is still with me now, 60 years later.
I began my classroom instruction of the Kennedy assassination during my first year as an educator in 1972, and I have taught the assassination for over 50 years. I've taught teachers and students alike in classes ranging from two or three days to a full-semester class at Brattleboro Union High School in 2006. I have made numerous presentations to historical societies, libraries, service organizations, a humanities council, and conferences.
In 1999, I was awarded the National Teacher of the Year Award from JFK Lancer, for which I spoke on the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza at the organization's solemn ceremony, which always includes a moment of silence at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time - at the location of and at the time of the shooting in Dallas.
I have had presentations in my classroom, both virtual and in person, from people who have been touched by the JFK assassination. I examined truckloads of documents and evidence that included, astonishingly, autopsy photographs of Lee Harvey Oswald, who the Warren Commission concluded was the lone assassin.
I am an educator. I am not a researcher. I am not a conspiracy theorist, nor do I advocate for the lone-nut-assassin version of the truth promoted by the Warren Commission.
My purpose is to share what my students and I have learned from those who witnessed various aspects of the assassination: researchers, doctors, and EMS personnel who tried to save President Kennedy and Oswald, and from others who have provided firsthand accounts from that day.
It's a complicated case, and I make no effort to solve it or suggest the mountain of theories as to who was involved or what motivation one (or more) assassins might have had. I have collected what eyewitnesses and researchers told me and my students.
Abraham Bolden: Some Secret Service agents 'would shoot [JFK] themselves if they had a chance'
Editor's note: This segment quotes the first African American Secret Service agent to serve on a presidential detail for U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Out of respect for Abraham Bolden, a person of color who related vile racial slurs addressed to him and deliberately told his story with the full emotional weight of that language, we are not redacting a particular word that we can all acknowledge is hurtful and offensive.
* * *
One primary source for the Kennedy White House was Abraham Bolden, though I did not even know who he was until I heard him speak at a conference in 2008.
Bolden was the first African American Secret Service agent in the presidential detail and, for three months in 1961, one of the agents assigned to protect President Kennedy. It is important to point out that Bolden was not with the presidential detail in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. But he has pointed remarks about the Secret Service, his treatment as an African American, and what happened in Dallas.
When I met with Bolden, he emphasized the importance of educating America's youth about what happened. He later conversed with my students via videoconference, and, on one occasion in 2009, we met with him in Dallas.
Abraham Bolden says of himself, "I was born in southern Illinois, near Carbondale. I grew up in a poor family, and we didn't have very much. My dad was a carpenter and a butcher. We went to high school there.
"East St. Louis, Illinois was what we would call a segregated, prejudiced city," he told us. "We had separate drinking fountains."
"When I was a young man, I wanted to be two things. I wanted to be a policeman and a musician. I got pretty good at music. I played the trumpet. I graduated high school in East St. Louis, Illinois. I then went to Lincoln University and majored in music. That was what I loved. But I always had this yearning to be in law."
Bolden became a Secret Service agent after having served in the Illinois State Police. He was admitted and assigned to its Chicago office.
In 1961, the president was coming to Chicago to thank Mayor Daley for Daley's help in winning the presidential election of 1960 for Kennedy. Chicago would be named the host city of the 1968 Democratic nominating convention as a reward for this support. He was to speak at McCormick Place, a world-class convention center.
"[With my] being the first African American agent stationed in Chicago, they had a little joke going, and they gave me a position that was normally held by a Chicago uniformed policeman - standing in front of the washroom of McCormick Place in Chicago."
But "I had to start at the bottom," he said. "I didn't complain. I just went there and stood in front of the washroom that night, April 28,1961."
"I could hear the band. [...] I looked up at the top of the steps. And lo and behold, there's President Kennedy, and the first thing he wants to do is use the washroom.
"He walked up to me with this wonderful smile on his face. The president, that smile was a gift. When he smiled, his eyes smiled, every part about him smiled. He walked in and stood directly in front of me. I didn't know whether to back up or step aside.
"I was right in front of the door. I moved to the side. He moved to the side, and then he said, 'Are you a Secret Service agent?' Kennedy turned to his staff and asked, 'Has there ever been a Negro on the White House Secret Service detail?' Kennedy turned to me and asked, 'Would you like to be the first?'
"Yes, sir, Mr. President."
President Kennedy's response was, "I'll be looking forward to seeing you in Washington, D.C."
* * *
When Abraham Bolden became the first African American on the presidential detail, he ran into a "hornet's nest of racism" around the president.
"I was called the 'N-word' by many of the Secret Service agents who were surrounding the president of the United States," he said. "Here's a president who is going on TV almost weekly, talking about the injustice of the people in the United States of America. And here are our agents surrounding him in his detail, who are calling him a nigger-lover [Bolden's choice of wording].
Bolden pointed out the dichotomy.
"He is a man full of love and justice," he said. "And he's surrounded by some agents who would shoot him themselves if they had a chance."
Even after 40 years, "it still affects me because I had an affection for President Kennedy," Bolden said. "I saw in him a man who had deep within him the welfare of all the citizens of the United States of America. He had won the trust and hearts of people across all sections, Blacks, and whites, and Jews - all types of people.
"He had their confidence. He had given, especially the minorities in America, a new hope, a new dream in the freedoms that he had exposed."
Kennedy knew he was putting a spotlight on Bolden.
"President Kennedy told me, 'As the first African American, I'm looking for you to demonstrate the same patience and attitude as Jackie Robinson. You're the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service.'"
"You can't fool me," Bolden said. "When I met President Kennedy, I could tell he was a sincere man. When I looked into his eyes, they were soft. His smile was genuine.
"When I was with him in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, he took me over and introduced me to his father, his mother, and [his brother,] Robert Kennedy. We all stood around talking. He didn't have to do that. He didn't even have to look at me once I reached the White House detail, but he did."
Bolden recalls that on his first day in the White House, "a cabinet meeting was getting out of session. Sen. Hubert Humphrey was there and the Secretary of State [Dean Rusk]. President Kennedy looked up, and he saw me. He said, 'Mr. Bolden, I see that you made it here.'
The President didn't know whether Bolden was Republican or Democrat. "It didn't make any difference to him," he said.
"He introduced me to Evelyn Lincoln [President Kennedy's secretary]; Pierre Salinger, who was his [press secretary]. And this touched me very much. The president said, 'Pierre, come in, I want to introduce you to somebody.'
"'I want you to meet Abraham Bolden,'" Bolden recalls Kennedy saying. "'He's the Jackie Robinson of the Secret Service.' It just melted my heart."
Bolden's Secret Service supervisor was a different story.
"Harvey Henderson, my supervisor, looked at me, and he said, 'I'm going to tell you something, and don't you ever forget it.' He looked me right in the eye. 'You'll never be anything but a name. You're a nigger. You were born a nigger. You're gonna die a nigger, and you will never be anything else but a nigger. So, act like it.'"
"Nooses were put on my desk."
"I saw this. I saw laxity and overconfidence. I saw a cavalier attitude. I heard agents who made statements like, 'If there is an assassination attempt on the president, I won't protect him. I won't do anything. I'd let it happen.'
"You can imagine," Bolden said. "The president is sending troops into the South to enforce integration, and he has a supervisor like this on his detail."
Bolden's options were limited, he said.
"I wouldn't have benefited by doing anything violent towards him [Henderson]. Number one, he was my supervisor. Number two, I owed it to the president not to engage in any type of violence that would embarrass him. I owed it to my race not to do anything that would cause harm. I wanted to be bigger than what Harvey had said.
"The 1960s was a rough time. People were trying to find out how they were gonna solve this race problem. The races were divided, Black and White. You had people who were being lynched. You couldn't imagine that you could go to a town or a restaurant down in the South, and the owner comes out and beats you with an ax handle.
"All these kinds of things were going on, and people were being lynched, with police backing in some cases. In other cases, they were trying to bring the races together. […] Black people, White people, Indian people, they were all concerned about solving this race problem. Within all that came John Kennedy, a man who had the heart to solve this particular problem. [...]
"President Kennedy didn't want to give Negroes an advantage in America. What he wanted was to make the playing field level, and he felt that in his heart."
* * *
The Presidential Detail came to Chicago in early November 1963, and a potential assassination plot was uncovered. It used a location like Dallas with the same shooting trajectory.
Abraham Bolden believes there was a conspiracy to assassinate the President of the United States of America.
"What happened on November the 22, 1963, was an infraction against all the people of America. It was an infraction against the Constitution of the United States of America. It was an infraction against the citizens of the United States of America. The people of the United States of America command justice. They want justice."
Bolden heard some saying, "The president is about to be taken care of." (He did not identify who.) He was aware of people saying they had enough money to finance an assassination plan. "We have to get rid of Kennedy," they would say. "President Johnson is going to be a better person that we can negotiate with to go back into Cuba."
The route of Kennedy's final parade through Dallas was dangerous, Bolden explains. It was originally rejected because of the risks of "the slow turns that it was going to take."
But, he explained, "they tell me that the Secret Service was overruled because President Kennedy wanted to be exposed to more people. They figured that with the motorcade moving slowly in making these turns that people would get a chance to see the President."
In Fort Worth and Dallas Kennedy's protection detail was cavalier, Bolden said, describing members of the detail who were overconfident and "there more for show."
They were "just not concentrating on that job when they had the most responsible job that a person can have in American society, and that is the protection of the president of the United States," he said. "They had let their emotions and feelings interrupt and counteract their duty."
"I'm not fighting the Secret Service," Bolden said. "I'm fighting for the Constitution of the United States of America. That's the important thing. And that's what was struck down in the streets of Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963."
* * *
During a Skype session in 2010, my students asked questions of Abraham Bolden.
They had been shown the Abraham Zapruder film of Kennedy's assassination. I had pointed out the positions of the other agents inside the presidential limousine and in the follow-up car, but the students wondered why only agent Clint Hill seemed to react.
They asked Bolden if he could take them through the chain of command and if he knew who was able to compromise the Secret Service.
Bolden began, "The man who sits in the right seat next to the driver of the follow-up car, he is the one who really makes decisions on who does what. I believe in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the agents saw that the President's car was reduced to less than 10mph. There was nothing that was written in stone or anything - [but] when the president's car falls below 10 mph, it jeopardizes the president."
As an agent, "you move and take positions around the president's car," Bolden continued. "The motorcycles were supposed to close in order to protect the president and put him in a shield, so to speak. That's what this agent tried to do. When he felt that the car had reached that 10 mph minimum limit, he alighted off the running board on the follow-up car. He was called back by one of the supervisors and, with palms turned upward, he wondered, 'What's going on?' He was very dejected about that. The agent [...] was assigned to the front, and he tried to do his job."
Bolden said that he had made a prediction to both Urbanus Baughman, the chief of the United States Secret Service between 1948 and 1961, and to Roy Kellerman, the U.S. Secret Service senior agent assigned to protect United States President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963, in Dallas: "'If an attempt is made on the president, it will be successful.' I had warned them that there were agents that were in that detail who would not react. Only one agent reacted, and he had nothing to do with the president of the United States."
"I heard that some agents who were in the detail drank a lot. When I reported to the White House detail on June 6, 1961, I had an opportunity to see. I had to travel with President Kennedy to Massachusetts. […] On the press plane, I noticed that the agents began to use alcohol. This was against regulations."
With this presidential detail, Bolden said, "it wouldn't take a genius to know that our president was in serious trouble if an attack were made on him."
He told the students what he said earlier.
"You had agents within the Secret Service during that particular time who hated President Kennedy, and they were his immediate bodyguard. I heard with my own ears; nobody told me this. I heard with my own ears agents that were saying, 'If somebody takes a shot at President Kennedy, I won't respond. I'll let it happen. Somebody needs to kill the SOB.'"
Bolden was in Chicago on the day of the assassination. He was not part of the detail protecting President Kennedy in Texas.
"Suddenly, up pops CBS News with a bulletin that the president had been shot in Dallas. Something happened to the President. I saw the pictures that came out of Dallas and saw the president being shot and [Secret Service agent] Clint Hill, who I had a lot of respect for, who I had had long conversations with, was the only person who responded of all the agents who were in a follow-up car."
Clint Hill's charge was Jacqueline Kennedy. He was supposed to protect her. He immediately ran to Jacqueline Kennedy and positioned himself over her. She was holding her husband, so, in effect, Agent Hill was protecting both. None of the other agents reacted.
To Abraham Bolden, "That was very suspicious to me."
When Nov. 22 happened, "Everything that I said became true. The president's brain laid on the back of his limousine.
"We failed the president, not just the guys in Dallas. We all did. We had all sorts of information about conspiracies, from Miami to Tampa and in Chicago. We were receiving all kinds of telephone calls. 'The President is going to be assassinated.'
"We had all kinds of information that teams [...] were just following the president around town to get a chance to kill him. To hear one of his bodyguards, the Secret Service agent, saying that if anyone attempted to assassinate him, they wouldn't react.
"And yet we failed."
Beverly Oliver: Babushka Lady?
As the authorities looked for information and evidence in the investigation of who killed President John F. Kennedy, they saw in almost all still photos and video footage a woman whose face was concealed by her position and a headscarf. She appeared to have a movie camera and would have captured the assassination on film.
The police sought information from the woman who, due to her headscarf, had been dubbed the "Babushka Lady." (A babushka is a headscarf tied under the chin, typical of those worn by Polish and Russian women.)
Beverly Oliver was 17 years old on Nov. 22, 1963. She parked her car and walked to Dealey Plaza with her movie camera in tow.
What happened next would change the life of Oliver, who since 1970 has identified herself as Babushka Lady. She witnessed the assassination of President Kennedy from the side of Elm Street opposite the grassy knoll. She was one of the closest eyewitnesses to the assassination.
She stood next to Charles Brehm, who was there with his son; to Jean Hill, a retired schoolteacher ("the Lady in Red"); and to Mary Ann Moorman who, with her Polaroid camera, took the most iconic photograph of President Kennedy during the assassination.
Investigators had seen the Mary Ann Moorman photograph and how difficult it is to see the background on the poor-quality Polaroid. Oliver was filming in the same direction. A shooter positioned on the grassy knoll would have had a better chance of appearing in Oliver's film than in any of the other visual evidence collected from that day.
Oliver is a passionate person, full of enthusiasm, and an outspoken eyewitness to the assassination. It wasn't always that way.
"I had not intended to go to Dealey Plaza that day at all," she said. "I just wanted to get down to a curb where I could film the president. I had a brand-new movie camera. That was my intent - to film the president."
From her vantage point, Oliver could see the motorcade come around the corner of Houston and Elm and then pass her on its way through the triple overpass.
She describes the crowd and the atmosphere. "Have you ever been in a situation where the hair on the back of your neck and the hair on your arms stand up? That's the way it was that day. The air was charged with electricity and excitement. It just made you feel like your hair was just standing up everywhere on the body."
Oliver began filming to make sure that her camera was working properly. When the president started to get closer the crowd noise intensified. "You could hear them cheering. The closer he got, the more exciting it got."
It wasn't long after the limousine turned on to Elm Street that "there was noise, and the noise went bang, bang. I remember thinking at the time, Why would someone bring their children down here? My mind was thinking that someone had allowed their kids to bring poppers [a.k.a. bang snaps]. [...] You threw them on the sidewalk, and they made a little bang sound. That's what it sounded like - bang, bang, bang. Where the shots came from never even entered my mind. I was filming."
Oliver was occupied filming the motorcade and, later, with the aid of hypnosis, she remembered hearing a "big" and "different" sound, a "boom."
At that point, "the president went back against the seat," she said.
Scholars of the assassination pay particular attention to the forces of physics on the president.
"They will talk about whether he went forward or whether he went backward," Oliver said. "The only time I ever have a conscious memory of the president going forward more than just slumping was when Jackie Kennedy [...] pushed him down with her elbow and climbed up over the trunk of a car. […]
"When the bang, bang, or the boom happened, Mrs. Kennedy said something like, 'Oh, my God, he's been' - I couldn't tell whether she said 'shot' or 'hit.' It was like the whole back of his head went out over the back of the trunk of that car. It looked like a bucket of blood had just been thrown out."
Dan Rather of CBS News called Beverly Oliver "a liar and a hoax," based on his viewing of the Zapruder film, which shows the president's head going violently forward from the impact of the bullet.
Beverly Oliver had just been thrust into history and tumultuous years that would question her honesty and character.
"Everybody else is on the ground. Except me. I'm standing still there with my camera. I'm in absolute shock. Just standing there. I could not move. People asked me. 'Did the car stop?' I don't know, Bill. Everything stopped for me. The whole world stopped. I don't know if it was five seconds, five minutes. I don't know. I was in total shock.
"I do have a very conscious memory of [the limousine] speeding off. But at the time the president was shot, the fatal shot, time stopped for me. It was like when you have a dream, and you can't wake up, but that's the state of emotion that I was in," she said.
"We had no way of knowing whether he was alive or dead or what had happened. I left knowing that if they wanted to know anything about me, they would know where to find me.
"I left and I walked back to my car. I got in my old Buick. It had a terrible radio. The antenna was broken, so I couldn't really get a clear signal until I got out on the North Central Expressway. That's where I was able to pick up the signal to hear that President Kennedy was dead.
"I pulled over into a parking lot. I sat there and cried. My heart was broken. You see, it wasn't just the tragedy of having seen him blown away right in front of my eyes. But there was an atmosphere in America in 1963 for young people. Kennedy was the first president born in our generation."
Overcome with grief and trauma, Oliver "went home that day and took some sleeping pills, and I went to bed. I didn't go to work at night. I couldn't face it."
Her mother eventually woke her up and offered to take her to Dealey Plaza to see the flowers that people had brought as tributes.
* * *
The weekend proceeded.
"I didn't go to work that day (Friday, Nov. 22). I didn't go to work the next day (Saturday, Nov. 23). On Sunday, I didn't go to work. I woke up and saw my friend Jack Ruby, his friend Lee Oswald that he introduced me to, on national television - just blew him away," Oliver said.
Lee Oswald was in custody for the murder of Dallas policeman J.D. Tippit and was in the process of a transfer from the Dallas City jail to the county jail in Dealey Plaza when Oswald was shot dead by Jack Ruby (a.k.a. Jacob Rubenstein). On Monday, Nov. 25, the funeral of the president was on national television.
"I didn't get to work that night, and on Monday night (the 25th), my mother told me, 'Beverly, you're gonna have to get up, you're gonna have to go. You can't stay here in bed. You just can't do this.'
"I went to work the next night. I got there at 7:45, which was my usual time to arrive at work."
Beverly Oliver worked at the Colony Club next to the Carousel Club on Commerce Street in Dallas, which was operated by Jack Ruby. During breaks from her dancing job, Oliver would walk next door and visit Ruby, "a dear friend of mine."
She said she was introduced to Lee Harvey Oswald at Ruby's Carousel Club three weeks before the assassination when Ruby "just casually said, 'Oh, by the way, Beverly, this is my friend Lee. He's with the CIA.'"
When she returned to work and walked up the stairs to the Colony Club, she encountered two men on the landing. They wanted the film.
"The taller of the two men stepped forward and introduced himself. He had proper identification. […] He said, 'I understand that you were down at the grassy place taking pictures when the president was killed,'" referring to what would eventually become known as the Grassy Knoll.
"Yes, sir," Oliver replied. "I was taking movie film."
The man wanted to know if Beverly had developed the film yet, and she replied that she had not.
"'Where is it?' he asked.
"I said, 'It's still on my camera.'
"He said, 'Where's your camera?'
"I said, 'It's in my makeup kit.'
"He said, 'Well, we want to take it to get it developed and look at it for evidence, and we'll get it back to you in a few days.'
She realized that right next to the camera and makeup kit was "a Prince Albert can full of marijuana."
Oliver maneuvered her body so the agent could not see her retrieving the film.
In 2006, as she spoke to my class, she showed us an FBI document that references her as "the female wearing a brown coat taking pictures [sic] from an angle, which would undoubtedly include the Texas School Book Depository in the background […]. Her pictures evidently were taken just as the President was shot."
The document seemingly acknowledges receipt of the film and discusses arrangements to have it developed and returned.
Oliver said she has not seen her film since.
She told us she has been threatened numerous times.
"I used to really take these things [threats] seriously. I don't anymore. The last time I got threats was whenever I was coming out with my book [in 1994]. And both of these came from Houston, same post office, same handwriting. One of them says, in big black letters - 'death.' The other one says, 'snitch, your [sic] dead.'"
She believes she has identified the man who took her film as an FBI agent from New Orleans, "field agent Regis Kennedy, who was sent here [Dallas] on Nov. 25, 1963."
One 1978 response from the U.S. Secret Service to a Freedom of Information Act request asserts that "at the present time, there are no records or documents pertaining to Ms. Beverly Oliver or the film which was allegedly turned over to agents of this service."
Such language in these FOIA responses might speak volumes.
"They've lost it," she said. "They don't know where it is at the present time."
Oliver and Jean Hill ("The Lady in Red") are called liars and a hoax by some. "There's no place that you can actually see my face," Oliver said. "I've had to resort to other things to prove that that was me down there."
But her father kept a pair of her shoes - the same shoes that she wore on the day of the assassination. She held them up for us.
"Lo and behold, what do they have on the bottom of them? It's almost gone after all these years. You can still see a little bit of the yellow paint, freshly painted marks," Oliver said. She asserted that "it's an exact match to the paint on the side of the street" and that the shoes can be matched to distinct characteristics of her feet.
She acknowledges that there are many skeptics who do not believe that she is the Babushka Lady and federal officials who "don't like my story."
"Let me tell you one thing," she told my class. "If there's anybody in the world that would like to say that Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president from the sixth-floor window of the Book Depository, it would be me. I am extraordinarily patriotic. I'm very politically active.
"I still believe with all my heart that this country is the best country on this globe. Yes, we have our spots. We have our blemishes. We have our wrinkles. We have our problems because human beings are running this country. Every human being has spots, blemishes, and wrinkles.
"But let me tell you something: You better be proud that you live in this country, even though it's a country that allowed something so heinous as a president to get killed in broad daylight in the streets of Dallas and get away with it. But it also allows people like you, and people like me, to continue to question it, and research it and dig into it.
"We're gonna dig up the truth, and we'll dig at least through getting a torch to pass."
William Holiday, retired from a long career teaching history at Brattleboro Union High School and in the wider community, has just written and published JFK Assassination: What They Told Me, a book that conveys the educator's 50-year history of seeking to unravel the truths behind the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963.
Holiday serves as a conduit for the firsthand accounts that he has, with the help of generations of students, accumulated over time, introducing his students to sources whose accounts can add to the body of knowledge of a heartbreaking day in the life of the United States. He introduces witnesses to the assassination, both direct and indirect, who have shared their stories with him and his students over the years.
To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination, The Commons brings you two of Holliday's accounts from his book, as well as some of his introductory words to contextualize his interest in and experience with this material.
We have adapted and condensed these accounts for our pages while intending to remain faithful to the richer and more finely grained versions in his book, which he suggests would be useful "for educators to think beyond the daily activities within the four walls of the classroom," he writes. "Opportunities can be arranged for students to experience history firsthand rather than through textbooks."
JFK Assassination: What They Told Me is available at Everyone's Books in Brattleboro and The Toadstool Bookshop in Keene, or at bit.ly/741-jfk.
This Voices Dispatch was submitted to The Commons.