(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.”
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.