He attended public school in Mississippi and Chicago, Illinois. He graduated from the University of Chicago in 1950 and received a B.A. degree in political science from Roosevelt University in 1954. He received an M.A. from Northwestern University in 1956 and his Ph.D. in 1961. He served in the Korean War from 1955 to 1957.
Holden taught political science at the University of Illinois, Wayne State University, and the University of Pittsburgh. He was a professor of Political Science/Public Policy Administration at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from 1969 to 1981. He joined the University of Virginia faculty in 1981 and became the Henry L. and Grace M. Doherty Professor Emeritus of Politics.
- Fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2001
- L. H. D. (Hon,), Virginia Theological Seminary, 2000
- St. Clair Drake Lecturer, Roosevelt University, 1999
- Elected to Omicron Delta Kappa, University of Virginia, 1995
- Otto Wirth Award, Roosevelt University Alumni Association, 1988
- Phi Beta Kappa, University of Virginia, 1986
- L.L.D. (Hon.), Tuskegee University, 1985
- President, American Political Science Association, 1989