“Activist”: The Fighting Life of Wiley L. Bolden

The lead plaintiff in the landmark Bolden v. City of Mobile case led a life of consequence and service.

Wiley Bolden, center, marches alongside Yvonne Kennedy, Joseph Lowery, Jesse Jackson and others in support of voting rights, April 1981. Image courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by John P. Schaffner, Mobile Press-Register.

Wiley Bolden lived nearly all his long life in Mobile. Throughout these years, he was involved in several organizations dedicated to civil rights and social justice. Bolden was one of John LeFlore’s most reliable associates, his “Amen Corner,” according to one observer. His name appears in most surviving membership rosters of both the Mobile NAACP and the Non-Partisan Voters’ League, groups he helped found.

When he was 83 years old, Bolden agreed to be a party in the landmark voting-rights suit that changed Mobile’s form of government and served to strengthen a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. Thereafter, legal scholars and pundits would know his name, like Homer Plessy and Oliver Brown before him. Few, however, would recognize the depth of his commitment to equality, which encompassed much of the American Century.

Wiley Lee Bolden was born on December 30, 1892, near Sawyerville in rural Hale County. He was the fifth of eight children born on his father’s farm. When Wiley was 12, his father enrolled him at a primary school attached to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute. Equipped with this education, the Hale County soil would not long hold him. Before his 20th birthday, Bolden moved to Birmingham and took a job working in the coalfields of the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI).

Bolden, standing outside his home in Mobile, circa 1976. Image courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History

Military service interceded. Bolden was drafted in the summer of 1917. A few weeks later, on September 5, he and Gertrude Speight were married. By the time he departed for distant shores the following summer, Gertrude was pregnant with the first of their five children. (Gertrude died in 1938. Bolden later married Flossie Mace in Baldwin County.)

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Bolden served in Company E of the 366th Infantry Regiment, which was part of the Army’s vaunted 92nd Division. It was a segregated unit under the command of white officers. Most of the commissioned personnel, though, were Black. Bolden achieved the rank of sergeant. His training at Tuskegee and his time at TCI no doubt distinguished him among his fellow draftees. The division’s first assignment was to the St. Die Sector on the Western Front. A few weeks after they arrived, a German plane bombarded portions of the division with propaganda leaflets questioning why Black soldiers would choose to fight for a country that treated them as second-class citizens. “There is nothing in the whole game for you but broken bones, horrible wounds, spoiled health or death,” it read.

The disciplined soldiers of the 92nd ignored such entreaties. “We didn’t feel we had time to carry any bitterness,” Bolden recalled decades later. “We came to defend the country that we hoped someday would be a place we would call home and be citizens of — recognized citizens.” He was wounded in the line of duty on September 4, 1918. Still, he remained with his company during their entire 28-day assignment at St. Die, and then on to the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the sprawling final campaign on the Western Front.

But no victory parades greeted Wiley Bolden and the other members of the 366th once their service ended. He returned to his family and the coalfields of TCI. An enumerator for the 1920 Census found the young family living in rented quarters in Birmingham with two of Gertrude’s relatives.

Soon thereafter, a change in careers brought the Boldens to the Port City. In 1923, he became a sales manager for the Atlanta Life Insurance Company and was assigned to the Mobile office. Founded in 1905, Atlanta Life was among the largest Black-owned businesses in the South. The position afforded Bolden a degree of comfort previously unknown to him.

He registered to vote in 1925, no straightforward task for a Black man in Alabama during the era. A white druggist had to vouch for Bolden’s character. Even then, he could not vote in primaries held by the all-dominant Democratic Party, which restricted membership to whites only until 1944. The same year that he registered to vote, Bolden also became president of the revived Mobile branch of the NAACP. His ensuing partnership with John LeFlore lasted five decades.

The two were natural partners, and fast friends, with much in common: family men charting new paths that were far removed from their poverty-stricken upbringings, both keenly aware of the need to combat the harsh realities of Jim Crow. Alongside them was a coterie of teachers, tailors, salesmen, carpenters, undertakers and Pullman porters. “The going was painful and slow,” Bolden recalled of the branch’s early years. “Sometimes we didn’t have enough money to buy postage, but we didn’t stop the fight.”

That fight later expanded to the Non-Partisan Voters’ League, which Bolden helped organize with LeFlore during World War II as the number of Black voters in the city grew. When the State of Alabama succeeded in briefly outlawing the NAACP in the mid-1950s, the League continued the work of determinedly chipping away at Mobile’s rigid color line.

In 1975, the League filed a suit alleging Mobile’s at-large form of government diluted the importance of the Black vote, in violation of the 15th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act. Bolden was among the 14 named plaintiffs. LeFlore’s decades of casework made the case possible. But it would transpire without him. The leader died of a heart attack a few months before the trial began. It fell then to Wiley Bolden to carry the mantle.

Wiley Bolden speaking to a crowd at the Mobile County Courthouse during a rally held to support the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act, April 1981. Image courtesy Alabama Department of Archives and History. Donated by Alabama Media Group. Photo by John P. Schaffner, Mobile Press-Register.

Over the next seven years, Bolden attended every court proceeding. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in the city’s favor and remanded the case back to the U.S. District Court for retrial. Congressional Democrats successfully turned the case into a nationwide debate on strengthening the protections of the Voting Rights Act in 1982. Wiley Bolden stood tall through all of it.
He reveled in handing new acquaintances his calling card, which simply read “WILEY L. BOLDEN – ACTIVIST.”

“I’ve fought all my life to give my race a chance,” he told reporters in the summer of 1981 during the successful retrial. “We’re not going to stop in our pursuit of justice and fair play and our right to have a voice in the government under which we live. Not while there’s a court in the land.”

In 1986, a few months after the new form of government went into effect, Bolden made his way into the council chambers. Amidst the sparse crowd, his presence was no doubt conspicuous. At the appointed time, he rose and addressed the very government his efforts helped bring about, which now included African American and women representatives. “I’m looking for better and better things for Mobile,” he said to the diverse assembly, “a Mobile more full of folks who want to do something worthwhile for the elevation and uplift of the people.” Those in attendance rewarded the aged activist with extended applause.

Laurels came while Bolden was alive. He was a nominee for the NAACP’s prestigious Spingarn Medal. The nonagenarian kept an energetic pace until the very end. He was a frequent and unvarnished commentator on state and local politics and a Sunday School teacher at Toulminville-Warren Street United Methodist Church.

Wiley L. Bolden died in Mobile on February 12, 1987. He was 94 years old. The next day, the editors of the Mobile Press honored his life’s work by quoting portions of his speech before the City Council: “Through his efforts, Bolden set Mobile on the road to ‘better and better things.’”

Writer and historian Scotty E. Kirkland is the author of a forthcoming book entitled, “Jordan’s Stormy Banks: Politics and Race in Twentieth-Century Mobile” and is a regular contributor to Business Alabama Magazine.

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