The Honorable Raymond Alan Bolden passed away peacefully at home on August 17, 2021 at the age of 87, surrounded by his family and in the sure presence of the Holy Spirit. A warrior for justice his entire life, his legacy of courage and service will live on in the lives of those he loved, and those he inspired.
Born December 17, 1933 in Chicago, IL to Catherine Hester Ray and Adrian Bolden, he moved to Joliet as a teen, where he lived with his maternal grandfather, Edward “Papa” Ray. "My grandfather," he often said, "was the greatest man I ever knew." Later in his life, as he became the patriarch of his own family, his grandchildren would bestow that same endearment upon him--Papa.
As a young man he struggled through poverty, homelessness, and racism, but he was an exceptional student and powerful orator, and he dreamed of becoming a lawyer like his hero, Thurgood Marshall. He had many mentors in the Joliet community who encouraged him and supported him, especially the late Vern and Lillie Dillon, and the late Gladys Boyden.
He graduated from Joliet Township High School in 1951, from Joliet Junior College in 1953, and then served in the United States Air Force. In 1961, he earned his law degree from the University of Illinois.
In 1956, he married his high school sweetheart, the late Kathleen Whitfield Bolden, and in 38 years of marriage they raised three children: Kathryn “Kay” Bolden of New Orleans, LA; Attorney Alan Scott (Erika) Bolden of Washington, DC; and Joseph Bolden of Joliet, IL. Kat and Ray were soldiers in the Civil Rights Movement, where they battled ceaselessly against racial discrimination in housing, employment and education. They were partners in crime on numerous community projects, including the Warren-Sharpe Community Center, which they co-founded in 1990. He served as President of the Joliet Branch of the NAACP during the tumultuous 60’s, and later received its Lifetime Achievement Award.
After being admitted to the bar, he spent the next 40+ years as a trailblazer, beginning with a stint as the county’s first Black Assistant State’s Attorney. He became a renowned criminal defense lawyer, taking on--and winning--the most challenging cases. He was a brilliant legal strategist and a dynamic public speaker, and watching him conduct a trial was watching a master at work.
He believed in the law--that it could be a great force for social justice and equality. Nothing made him prouder than seeing the talent and drive of the young Black lawyers who followed in his footsteps, especially his son, A. Scott Bolden. Nothing pleased him more than watching them succeed.
He was appointed Will County Associate Judge in 1986--a post he held with distinction for 14 years. Following his retirement from the bench, he returned to the practice of law, and eventually was reappointed as a Circuit Court Judge for a one-year term.
As a man of great kindness and warmth, it was only natural that he would find love again, and on Valentine’s Day 1998, he married Deborah Hickman McLurkin. Together they nurtured their collective children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, and they continued to serve the community through the National Hook-Up of Black Women, the Black Bar Association of Will County (which he co-founded in 2007) and various ministries of Sacred Heart Parish. In these last years of his life, Debbie has been his constant companion, caring for him with endless love and grace.
He lived by what he called the 5 P’s … perspicacity, perseverance, persistence, purpose, and patience. He told his grandchildren--more times than they wanted to hear--that these five attributes would see them through any difficulties, especially if they added the secret 6th P: prayer.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” You never had to wonder where Ray Bolden stood--he was always on the side of equality, always a champion for the weak and the oppressed, always lifting his mighty voice to demand justice.
You never had to look for Ray Bolden in times of crisis--he was always front and center. He was the leader who energized us, the hero we admired, the man filled with the Holy Spirit, marching to the beat of history.
A lifelong member of Sacred Heart Parish, his faith in our loving and living God was an integral part of who he was as a lawyer, a husband, a father, and a man. “Justice is a spiritual principle,” he would say. “If you love God, you must want justice for His people.” His 80th birthday was celebrated with great fanfare in the church hall in 2013.
Although he spent his earliest years on the north side of Chicago, he was a rabid White Sox fan. He was happy to explain why: in the 1930’s and 40’s before Jackie Robinson broke the color line in Major League Baseball, the White Sox franchise allowed the Negro Leagues to use Comiskey Park for their games. On the north side, the Wrigleys refused. So it was at Comiskey that he saw the great Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige play. It was to Comiskey he’d take the streetcar on Sundays--after telling his mother he was going to Mass. When the Sox won the World Series in 2005 after a near 100-year drought, he remarked, “I can die happy now. I’ve seen everything.”
As for the Cubs … well, it’s 75 years later, and he still hasn't forgiven them.
The practice of law--and the pursuit of justice--was his passion and the fulfillment of his dream … but his heart belonged to his children, grandchildren, and family. Christmas surprises, Thanksgiving feasts, Saturdays at the ballpark, road trips to nowhere--he gave us adventure and security, humor and encouragement, every day of our lives. As he once said about his own grandfather, we now say about him: he’s the finest man we’ll ever know.
Judge Bolden was preceded in death by his grandfather, his parents, his brothers, Frank, Joseph, and Edward, and his dear sister, June Bolden. He leaves many to cherish his memory: his loving wife of 23 years, Deborah Bolden; his children, Kay Bolden, A. Scott (Erika) Bolden, and Joseph Bolden; his grandchildren, Shayla Grayson of Gulfport, MS; Joshua Bolden of Joliet IL; Jeremy (Katie) Bolden of Joliet, IL; Karyn (Dennis) Omogbeme of Chicago, IL; McKay Bolden of Richmond, VA; McKenzie Bolden of San Diego, CA; and Cameron Bolden of Chicago IL; his great-grandchildren, Ashanti Govan; Kyla, Jacari and Isaiah Bolden; and Harlie Jade and Cree Bolden; his bonus children, Justin McLurkin of Joliet, IL and Kimberly (David) Wright of Los Angeles, CA; his bonus grandchildren, Cole Hughes, Elliott and Emerson Wright, and Caitlyn and Sydney McLurkin; his beloved sister-in-law, Betty (Billy) Byrd and the entire Byrd family; his niece, Linda (Eric) Washington and nephew, Eugene ‘Geno’ Bolden; special cousins, Barbara "Penni" Williams and Sherri Tramel, and countless friends and relatives.
The family requests that, in lieu of flowers, remembrances be made in the form of contributions to Warren-Sharpe Community Center, 454 South Joliet Street, Joliet, IL 60436