Writing about Reverend Willie M. Bolden as a history maker is a piece of cake – in other words, a welcomed assignment and a labor of love. Over the past five or six years, I have come to know Willie much better; don’t know why it has taken us so long to get to know one another. We come from the same universal neighborhood – the segregated south.
Born in Sumter, South Carolina in 1938, son of Charles Bolden and Sadie Mae Bolden, Willie Bolden’s life was not easy. His birth mother passed when he was only three days old; his uncle move the family to Savannah, Georgia, so Willie would not have to grow up in the hills of South Carolina. I wasn’t there but I just feel what life was like for a very bright young Black country boy during this time in history.
Willie attended Florence Elementary School in Savannah and graduated from Alfred E. Beech High School where he played basketball and football as a teenager. It was in Savannah, in 1961, that he met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and got the activism bug – setting him on a life path of service.
If you have community activism in your soul, it is bound to come out. Bolden has it in his heart and soul. So his commitment to civic service and community involvement grew under the tutelage of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, and Dr. King during the eight plus years that he worked at SCLC. He put his head and his heart into his work with SCLC serving the cause in the infamous St. Augustine, FL in 1964; in Marion, Alabama; and of course in Georgia, in Savannah, Macon, and Atlanta. He took a great amount of pride in his job and was noted as the “Wagon Master” for the Mule Train on the Poor People’s Campaign.
It was a blessing that plucked Willie Bolden out of the midst of wondering what to do with his life and sent him to Harvard University in Cambridge, MA. He was selected to participate in a program where he received college credit for life experiences and ultimately, after matriculating at Harvard, he received the masters of education (M. Ed) degree in 1972. Bolden also studied at the John F. Kennedy Institute of Politics and the Interdenominational Theological Center (The ITC) in Atlanta where he received his certificate in theology.
Dedication to community service was the catalyst that moved Bolden’s career toward union representation and he served as a representative for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME Local 1644) from1973 to 1979. In this job all of his experience, education, and training went into full swing because he was the best union rep in Georgia and beyond. He represented local membership in contract negotiations and arbitration of employee grievances with supervisors and/or management.
Bolden was the director of personnel for the Atlanta Fulton Public Library for a few years and later he served as coordinator of employee relations with the Atlanta Public School System. His calling to the pulpit could not be denied and he was licensed to preach. He was ordained at Bethlehem Baptist Church and served as the associate pastor. He also served as the Pastor at Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Bolden’s resume of civic leadership includes active membership in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), The Concerned Black Clergy of Atlanta, Eta Omega Chapter of the Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Saint James Lodge NO 4F (Prince Hall), the Georgia Coalition of the People’s Agenda and the former president of the SCLC Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. A list of honors and recognitions received from many organizations include: Commendable Contributions to the Civil Rights Movement (Georgia House of Representatives), Thomasville Heights Elementary School Community Awareness Award, Unsung Hero of the Civil Rights Movement (National Southern Christian Leadership Conference), Pioneer Civil Rights Trailblazer Award from the Atlanta Tuskegee Alumni Club, Professional Award in Religion (Eta Omega Chapter, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity), Foot Soldiers Tribute from the Atlanta Chapter of The NAACP, and inducted into the International Civil Rights Hall of Fame by the Trumpet Awards Foundation, just to name a few.
Recently, Reverend Bolden is often asked to give talks about his experiences with Dr. King and his time spent with SCLC. I witnessed one of his speeches and saw him demonstrate how he and others were taught to protect each other when they were beaten during the civil rights turmoil of protests throughout the south. Bolden explains that they were instructed to use their bodies, hovered over each other, to withstand the blows of their oppressors (see picture where Bolden is demonstrating this method). This training would prove to be lifesaving when he used it to protect Ambassador Andrew Young in St. Augustine, Florida during “The St. Augustine Movement” in 1964.
Reverend Bolden is married to Dr. Georgianna Dean Bolden of Coldwater, Mississippi. He is the father of four children; Felicia Bolden Mobley, Charlesetta Bolden Legier, Michelle and Rodney Bolden. He is a loving husband, a doting father, and a super doting grandfather.
Many of us who know and appreciate the life that Willie Bolden lives, recognize that he ain’t no ways tired. He is not finished making history. Wherever there is a need to address human injustice or an issue in the community that requires attention, Willie Bolden is willing and ready to become involved. Not only is he involved, he is willing and able to step into the role of leadership. This is why his history is still being written.