Empty Board Hampers Effort to Release Records on Civil Rights-Era Killings

No one has been appointed to a board that is supposed to facilitate the federal government’s release of records about civil rights-era cold cases. The students who helped write the law establishing the board hope a new administration will change that.

Then-presidential candidate Joe Biden pays his respect to the four girls killed in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., after speaking at the Sunday service on Sept. 15. 2019. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)

(CN) — Years after Oslene Johnson helped write a law that directed the National Archives to collect and release documents detailing the unsolved killings of the civil rights era, she is still pushing for its implementation.

In the fall of 2015, Johnson was a junior just turned 16 at Hightstown High School in New Jersey taking an AP government and politics course. She had learned details about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, the 1963 attack that killed four girls in Birmingham, Alabama.

It affected her because Johnson used to attend church with her sister and that Sunday in 1963, she said, was supposed to be a regular Sunday. After school, she started researching on her own what the girls’ lives might have looked like and the legal issues surrounding the criminal trials held decades after the attack.

“I remember specifically thinking, ‘If I’m feeling this frustrated, this angry, this sad, what were the other friends and the people who knew those four little girls feeling then? What are the people who still don’t have all of the information that was gathered at the time, what must they be feeling?’” Johnson said in an interview.

Johnson was one of the students in that New Jersey high school who decided to do something about the often slow march towards justice in the many unsolved civil rights-era cold cases across the South. Using the 1992 law that released a collection of documents surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy as a template, the students poured over a Google Doc to create an early version of the bill.

It directs the National Archives and Record Administration to compile the documents that deal with the unsolved cases of the civil rights era, including FBI case files thousands of pages long and possibly sealed court records.

In January 2019, President Donald Trump signed the bill into law. It said that within 60 days of signing, the president would appoint members of a five-member review board that would start the process reviewing the documents.

Groups like the American Bar Association and American Historical Association put forth their nominees, but the appointments were never made.

Miriam Kleiman, spokesperson for the National Archives, said the agency has assessed the documents already in its holdings for inclusion into the civil rights-era cold case collection. But further steps must wait until a group of lawyers, archivists and historians are named to the five-person board.

And that power rests in the White House. It is that review board that can ask the attorney general to unseal court documents and grand jury proceedings, coordinate with the FBI and the Justice Department, and even issue subpoenas to gather documents that may shed light on the unsolved assassinations and bombings of the civil rights era.

When the students pushed the Trump administration to act on the bill, they tried to reach social media power user Trump by tweeting at him and connecting with his “midnight advisers.”

Hightstown High School students, who helped write the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, pose in front of the U.S. Capitol building. (Photo courtesy of Timothy Aveni)

But the game changed with the Biden administration. For instance, while Vice President Kamala Harris co-sponsored the students’ bill while she was in the Senate, the staff surrounding her changed when she moved to the White House.

The effort to lobby for the bill has become a part of Johnson’s life over the last few years.

While studying public affairs at American University in Washington, Johnson rode the Metro down to Capitol Hill when she had time in an effort to meet with people about the law.

These days, taking a gap semester, Johnson wakes up, brews herself a cup of peppermint tea and begin trawling social media and the news, trying to figure out who in Washington could help with the law today.

Johnson said the work of the review board is aligned with Biden’s messaging on bipartisanship and working to heal the nation.

“One of the best ways to do that is not turn your back to the past but to address it, acknowledge it honestly and respectfully and then allow access to that information,” Johnson said. “This is one of the few things that did receive overwhelming bipartisan support.”

Introduced by then-Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama and co-sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, the law passed the Senate unanimously via voice vote. Only a handful of lawmakers opposed it when it passed the House and went to President Trump’s desk.

“It’s as simple as picking five names from a 14-name list and then the Senate has to approve it, but I don’t think that will be an issue,” said Stuart Wexler, the students’ teacher.

Wexler has written several books about domestic terrorism, such as assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. He said he currently serves as the students’ coordinator, working with the current and former students who still want to work on the project, about 15 to 20 in all.

According to Wexler, changes in Washington have affected the ability of students to reach out. The pandemic is one factor, for instance. Where they used to get someone on the phone, now they leave messages.

For Wexler, the release of the documents is urgent because there are very elderly people affected by the violence who are still searching for answers questions that in some cases are as simple as: What was the motive for the violence? Where are their loved ones buried? And how much effort did law enforcement devote to solving the cases decades ago?

“My deadline is more like I don’t want to see somebody pass away when they could have maybe gotten some files that gave them a clue or an answer,” Wexler said.

The National Archives building in College Park, Md., houses the JFK assassination records, a collection used as a model for the law regarding civil rights era cold case records. (Courtesy: National Archives and Records Administration)

Jones, Alabama’s former senator, said it’s only a matter of time before the board members are appointed by the Biden administration.

“It’s really just a matter of bringing it to their attention, which I intend to do because I think they will quickly move,” Jones said in an interview, noting the new administration has “a lot on their plate right now.”

Jones’ friendship with Biden, according to his book “Bending Towards Justice,” began when Biden was a young senator and Jones began working on Democratic campaigns just out of law school.

When Jones – then U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama – began prosecuting two of the four men convicted in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing about two decades ago, Biden was one of the first people to congratulate him, Jones said.

Biden campaigned for Jones during his 2017 Senate run. And in 2019, Biden attended the service commemorating the 56th anniversary of that Birmingham bombing, speaking during the Sunday service as he was running for president.

Jones, however, said he never talked with Biden about the law. The expectation was that the Trump administration would act.

The White House did not return a request for comment.

Even before the students first started writing the bill, the idea of releasing the cold case records had been floated before. At least one similar bill was drafted before and Jones mentioned the idea to former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

Jones supported releasing the documents because while the incidents are considered pending investigations, the documents are not technically classified, he said.

During their government class, the students learned just how difficult it could be to learn about these civil rights-era cold cases. Class members tried to submit requests for documents under the Freedom of Information Act and the results were frustrating. When Johnson asked the National Archives to provide information about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, she never received a response. The handful of responsive records the class did receive were heavily redacted.

The Southern Poverty Law Center had similar results when it started creating the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. It submitted FOIA requests for records about the people whose names it wanted to inscribe on the memorial, but only got information on half of them, according to Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at SPLC.

When SPLC tried to request documents again in 2017, it again got only about half.  

Brooks said that she hoped the law would have come with funding to allow law enforcement to reinvestigate these cases to see if some of them were still prosecutable, or funding for some of the groups that have been trawling for information into these cases.

“There’s always been kind of an intention or a hope to uncover the details surrounding these cold cases but never enough funding,” Brooks said.

Hank Klibanoff, director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Atlanta’s Emory University, said the law will help researchers dig into old documents on these killings “without having to jump through three, four, five hoops.”

It’s a process Klibanoff knows well: He had to file two different requests, one to the FBI and another to the National Archives, to get information about the killing of Isaiah Nixon, a Black man shot in 1948 for voting in Georgia.

Klibanoff said the law drafted by the students – known formally as the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 – could make more of a difference than when the federal government tried to reopen a bunch of the cases a few years ago in the hopes of closing them. In many instances, the government closed the cases when they concluded there was no one left alive to prosecute. 

“This, you don’t have to have a living perpetrator,” Klibanoff said. “This allows the perpetrators – even if they are deceased – to still face the judgement of history. This allows historians, or families and newspaper reporters, to come in, look at them and write stories about what the record shows happened.”

The 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., was the target of one of the most horrific bombings of the civil rights era. (Courthouse News photo/Daniel Jackson)
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