Civil Rights Cold-Case Bill Drafted by High Schoolers Becomes Law

Civil rights leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963. (Photo via National Archives)

(CN) – Conceived by a group of New Jersey high school students, a bill President Donald Trump signed this week mandates the public disclosure of the FBI’s closed case files on murders of black people during the civil rights movement.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018’s journey to the president’s desk started in 2015 in the classroom of Hightstown High School history teacher Stuart Wexler.

Wexler said his students became frustrated when they learned the Justice Department had closed 113 civil rights murder cases and redacted many of the files.

Hightstown High School students in front of the U.S. Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Aveni.)

The students voted to create a bill to provide access to these records and found a willing sponsor in U.S. Senator Doug Jones, D-Ala.

Then U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, Jones convinced juries in 2001 and 2002 to convict two Ku Klux Klansmen of murder nearly 50 years after their bombing of a church in Birmingham killed four black girls. Both men were sentenced to life in prison.

The bill, signed late Tuesday by Trump, requires the FBI and other federal agencies to give the national archivist copies of civil rights cold-case records, without any redactions or changes, within two years, and the archivist to compile them in a collection in the National Archives.

If an agency maintains the files should stay closed, a five-person review board, whose members will be appointed by the president, will decide whether to postpone disclosure. The review board is also authorized to request files from the FBI and other federal agencies.

In a long statement on the bill clearly penned by White House attorneys, Trump said Tuesday he has “constitutional concerns” about giving the review board power to compel the FBI to give it cold-case records and made clear he can use his executive privilege to restrict access.

The president gave a half-hearted endorsement of the bill in his statement, noting it does not authorize Congress to set aside funds for its implementation.

“The Administration considers civil rights cold case records to be a matter of public importance. I have, therefore, signed this Act without generally endorsing the establishment of independent agencies to review and facilitate the declassification and release of government records,” he said.  

Students who worked on the project told Courthouse News they are thankful Trump signed the bill and hopeful the board can make their own declassification decisions without interference from the president.

“We firmly believe that the president’s concerns with the bill will not inhibit its implementation or hamper its potency over the four-year time period set out in the bill,” they said in a statement.

The law applies to records on unsolved crimes perpetrated from 1940 through 1979, and calls for the review board to terminate in four years unless a majority of its members vote to extend its term for one year.

Southern Poverty Law Center Outreach Director Lecia Brooks said she’s perplexed by Trump’s statement.

“I read it as I don’t know why he signed it,” she said.

She said she believes it sailed through Congress because there’s no money attached to it, and Trump’s caveats cast doubt on if he’ll let the records see the light of day.

“I’m of course happy any time the issue of cold cases is brought to the fore and it becomes part of the discourse,” she said. “The civil rights era cold cases don’t have to be cold cases. They continue to be cold cases because we lack the will to allocate the resources, financial and human resources, to solving these cases.”

If nothing else, Brooks said, Trump’s statement will give the students who helped write the bill a civics lesson that sometimes the fight for effective legislation does not stop when it’s signed into law.

“I want to applaud them and tell them that the work is not done. So this continues to be a lesson in real life politics,” she said in a phone interview.

Chiseled in a black granite memorial the Southern Poverty Law Center put up across the street from its headquarters in Montgomery, Alabama, are the names of 40 black “martyrs” who were killed in the South in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Brooks said a display at the memorial lists the names of 74 other African-Americans killed in the South during that time period, who the nonprofit calls “The Forgotten.”

They are not on the memorial because there was not enough information about their deaths to include them when it was built in the 1980s.

She said every couple years the Southern Poverty Law Center submits Freedom of Information Act requests to federal law enforcement agencies to see if any new information has been released about these murders.

“So just last year we completed that whole process, and we get little or nothing,” she said.

Emory University English professor Hank Klibanoff understands the Southern Poverty Law Center’s frustration.

Researching the 1948 murder of Isaiah Nixon, a black man who was shot dead in front of his wife and children at his Georgia farm by a white man because he had voted, Klibanoff said he sent a FOIA request for all records on Nixon to the FBI and Justice Department.

“The response was, ‘We don’t have any records.’ And I knew that had to be impossible,” said Klibanoff, a Pulitzer-Prize winning historian.

He said he knew FBI agents were all over Georgia from 1946 to 1948 investigating reports that white supremacist politicians were purging black voters from the rolls, or intimidating them not to register, as recounted in a podcast created by Klibanoff and his students called “Buried Truths.”

“So then I submitted my request to the National Archives and they found 235 pages. And when I said, ‘Where’d you get them?’ They said, ‘From the FBI,’” Klibanoff said on a phone call.

He said Nixon’s death certificate revealed he had died not in his home county, but two counties away because he had been taken to a hospital that accepted black patients.

His students used that information to find Nixon’s gravesite, he said.

“And this will just shortcut all of it,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. And not just for journalists and historians. But for families . . . to submit a request and have it all available to them without years of waiting.”

The New Jersey students who wrote the legislation are upbeat, despite Trump’s concerns with the bill.

“We’re looking forward to seeing this legislation serve its purpose, which has always been to acknowledge the wounds that families of civil rights victims have been living with for decades, and to provide them with as much closure as possible,” they said.

They modeled the law on the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which declassified government records about Kennedy’s assassination.

U.S. Senators Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and former Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri co-sponsored the bill. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., introduced a companion bill in the House of Representatives.

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