HONOR: Legendary Domestic Worker Dorothy Bolden

"I was the one that went up to Washington to kick up some hell about women not getting the attention they deserved." She said she fought "vicious hard" for maids to be recognized by the Social Security Administration. 

By Kay Powell - LEGACY.COM

Dorothy Bolden was absolutely fearless when it came to speaking up for the common person.

She founded the National Domestic Workers Union in 1968 and was an adviser to Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

"There wasn't in her lifetime a branch of government that wasn't influenced by Ms. Bolden," said Atlanta City Councilman Ivory Lee Young Jr., who represents District 3, which includes Ms. Bolden's Vine City neighborhood.

"Ms. Bolden was honest to a fault," Mr. Young said. "One hundred percent of the time, with the spirit of God working through her, she would convey the truth in a very unique and special way. The truth for her was, 'How does this affect ordinary people?' "

That driving principle led her to defeat, then support, MARTA, found the domestics' union, get a junior high school built in her neighborhood and influence elections.

The funeral for Dorothy Lee Bolden Thompson, 80, of Atlanta, who died of heart problems Thursday at Piedmont Hospital, will be 1 p.m. Tuesday at Friendship Baptist Church. Carl M. Williams funeral directors is in charge of arrangements.

Ms. Bolden's parents were a chauffeur and a housekeeper. She started washing diapers at age 9 and throughout her life was proud to proclaim, "I am a professional maid." In her role as activist, she used her name Bolden.

Already active in the civil rights movement with her neighbor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Ms. Bolden stopped him one day when she was waiting on a bus. Someone, she told him, should be concerned about the plight of domestic workers, toiling 12 hours a day and making about $35 a week.

"That's a good job for you," the Rev. King told her. That motivated her to establish a union for household workers in 1968.

Ms. Bolden's efforts attracted the attention of President Nixon, and she was appointed to an advisory committee on welfare and social services.

"I was the only Democrat up there," she said in a 1986 Atlanta Journal-Constitution article. "I was the one that went up to Washington to kick up some hell about women not getting the attention they deserved." She said she fought "vicious hard" for maids to be recognized by the Social Security Administration.

Eventually, her union organized in 10 cities and had 13,000 applicants for job referrals. Her only requirement was that an applicant be a registered voter.

"I don't want to be out here pushing for you and you not registered to vote," she said. "We aren't Aunt Jemima women, and I sure to God don't want people to think we are. We are politically strong and independent."

Ms. Bolden brought that strength to bear to defeat the first referendum to fund MARTA in 1968, because black people weren't included in the planning.

"We defeated it because they had nothing for us," she said in 2001 AJC article. "When you keep including us out, we don't need it."

Three years later, after the planning involved black people, she used her influence to support the MARTA referendum, and it passed.

"She had no fear about speaking out, and she was always on point," Mr. Young said.

U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper was fresh out of Emory University Law School when he first saw Ms. Bolden speak out. In a public meeting, she had a state department head cowering, he said. Afterward, she introduced herself to the young legal services lawyer and took an interest in him from the start, Judge Cooper said.

She was involved in the judge's campaigns, telling him who was for or against him and whom to trust.

"I took her advice," Judge Cooper said. "She always gave good, sound advice. She was very direct and open, and I respect her for that.

"Her legacy is that you can't trust government. You must be forever watchful. You have to bring pressure to bear on the system to see that the homeless and poor and locked out get justice. She was a warrior."

After Ms. Bolden closed the union office in 1994, she continued her advocacy.

"I've been there for a lot of history," she said in 1998. "I've seen history. I've made history."

Survivors include three daughters, Avon Whitehead and Altermiece Gates, both of Stone Mountain, and Dorothy Ingram of Atlanta; three sons, Frank Bolden of Charleston, S.C., and Anthony Thompson and Abram Thompson Jr., both of Lithonia; seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. READ ON LEGACY.COM

LISTEN to a rare audio interview on ATLANTA HISTORY CENTER

Photo: Dorothy Bolden Photo Credit: Traci Drummond