Michigan state Rep. Kyra Harris Bolden decided to pursue a career in politics after learning about the 1939 lynching of her great-grandfather.
The 35-year-old Democrat was still an undergraduate student when her great-grandmother told her the story of how Bolden’s great-grandfather Jesse Lee Bond was lynched by white store owners in Tennessee in 1939 and how his murderers were never brought to justice.
“He was beaten, castrated and thrown into a local river by a lynch mob because he asked for a receipt at a store,” Bolden, a candidate for the Michigan Supreme Court in the midterm elections, told HuffPost in an interview.
“The coroner said his death was an accidental drowning.”
Though Bond’s death went largely unreported for decades, the Lynching Sites Project (LPS), a Memphis-based organization that identifies Tennessee lynching victims, helped bring light to his death and the deaths of other victims of the racist laws and systemic oppression of the time.
“This story was shared with me late in my college career, and from there, I knew I needed to go into politics,” Kyra told HuffPost.
Her family’s story inspired Bolden to follow a career in law and politics, and if she wins a seat on the Michigan Supreme Court this November, she could be the first Black woman to do so in the state’s history.
“I always wanted to know who made the laws,” Bolden said. “The ambiguity of laws and how they were being executed bothered me. I knew I had real-world knowledge of how these laws affect people, and I’ve always been an advocate for change.”
In 2018, Bolden was elected to Michigan’s House of Representatives for the state’s 35th District, where she’s currently serving her second term in office.
Over the past 10 years, the Michigan native carved out a path in politics as a criminal defense attorney at the 46th District Court, in her hometown of Southfield and as a staff attorney at the Wayne County 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit. While in these positions, Bolden advocated for the fair treatment of Michiganders through its legal system by drafting opinions on civil issues, voting for pro-environment legislation and advocating for sexual assault victims.
The Democrat has also centered her work on criminal justice reform and bipartisan cooperation, and helped pass vital pieces of legislation such as the “Medically Frail” prison reform package that allows ailing prisoners who aren’t a threat to society to be paroled.
Bolden, who was vice chair of Michigan’s Progressive Women’s Caucus, has previously said that she tends to be more progressive.
In a January 2021 interview with The ’Gander, a Michigan-based partisan news site, Bolden said it was important to have lawmakers with progressive views in power, suggesting that the legislature would benefit from having a Democratic majority.
“I think it’s really important that we lift our voice to these issues,” the Democrat told The ’Gander. “It’s also very important that those with progressive views are in positions of power. That means flipping the Michigan House from red to blue.”
Though Bolden may make history in Michigan in November, the state representative has spent much of her legal career in the company with other history makers.
After graduating from the University of Detroit-Mercy School of Law, the bulk of Bolden’s legal experience came under the tutelage of prominent Black legal experts who have made history in Michigan, including Circuit Judge John A. Murphy in Wayne County, who is the longest serving Black judge in the state.
Early in her career, Bolden also worked as a civil litigator for Lewis & Munday, which is known as one of the nation’s oldest and largest law firms founded by Black attorneys. The firm has represented some of the biggest corporations in the U.S., including AT&T, Pepsi and Ford Motor Co.
Bolden told HuffPost she was grateful to learn from such prominent lawyers, especially considering that Black people are still a minority within the profession. According to the American Bar Association, Black attorneys make up only 5% of all lawyers.
“It’s been a life-changing experience for me to be trained under Black attorneys that have such a vast knowledge about the legal system,” Bolden said.
There are currently two seats open on the state Supreme Court in November’s election.
The Democratic nominees for the open seats are Bolden and incumbent Richard Bernstein, who is seeking reelection for a second term on the bench.
The Republican nominees are incumbent Brian Zahr, who has already served one full term and one partial term, and Paul Hudson.
Bolden, who will be the only Black candidate on the ballot for the open seats, hopes to bring back diversity to the bench.
The state Supreme Court has had an all-white bench since the end of 2018, after former state Justice Kurtis Wilder lost reelection. It marked the first time in 33 years that the bench did not have a justice of color, according to The Detroit News.
The lack of diversity concerned Rev. Wendell Anthony, the head of Detroit’s NAACP branch.
“We can count the number of African Americans that have been on the Michigan Supreme Court on … on one hand,” Anthony told The Detroit News in 2018. “It is supposed to be the highest (court), but you cannot be all of that unless you really reflect the highest values and traditions of all people.”
As the possible first Black woman on the state’s Supreme Court, Bolden takes this campaign very seriously.
“Diversity on the highest court in the state of Michigan is important, and I don’t take this moment lightly,” Bolden said.
“It’s hard to be what you can’t see, which is why representation is so important,” Bolden said. “When you see someone that looks like you doing great things, it makes it easier for another person to repeat these actions.”
If Bernstein and Bolden win, the Michigan Supreme Court would shift from a 4-3 Democratic balance to a 5-2 balance.
There is a third chance for Bolden to get on the bench if she doesn’t win during the midterms. Chief Justice Bridget Mary McCormack, a 10-year veteran of the bench, recently announced that she was retiring after Nov. 22.
At that point, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will appoint a new justice.
Bolden says she’s always looked up to McCormack as a mentor.
“I first met Justice Bridget Mary McCormack at a Labor Day parade,” Bolden said. “She was always kind, genuine and compassionate. She saw people for who they were and incorporated things they wanted to see from the court. I volunteered with her campaign in 2012 and was impressed by her willingness to engage with people, which is something that I took with me and still use today.”
With a November victory, Bolden would join other history-makers on her state’s Supreme Courts in the federal high court, including Otis M. Smith and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. Smith became the first African American justice of the Michigan Supreme Court in 1961, while Jackson became the first black woman ever to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court when her nomination was confirmed in April.
Bolden believes that any justice on the state Supreme Court must have the “fortitude to look into cases which may be riddled with discrimination and biased decision-making.”
“For me, having access to justice means having a fair opportunity to be seen, heard and not judged because of circumstance or previous cases,” Bolden said. “You always want to make sure you have every piece of information to make a good decision, which is what I’ve done as a state representative. I’m really hopeful that we can bring the win across the finish line and send a powerful message to those who look like me.”