When a group of New Jersey High School Students became frustrated that the Justice Department closed 113 civil rights murder cases and redacted many of the files related to those cases, they did something unexpected. The students of Stuart Wexler, a history teacher at Highstown High School, decided to author a bill that would give access to those records, the “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018”.
However, conceiving such a bill was not the end of this journey; the students then began the search for a sponsor for the bill. They found their sponsor far away from their New Jersey high school, Senator Doug Jones, D-Alabama.
Jones has a history of supporting civil rights cold cases. In 2001 and 2002, then acting as attorney general, Jones convinced juries to convict two Klu Klux Klansmen of murder after they bombed a church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963, killing four black girls.
Jones was not alone in his sponsorship of the bill. The bill was a bipartisan effort between Jones and Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
Jones argued that officials within the Executive Branch of the government processed Freedom of Information Act requests to review such cases too slowly. When such a request is processed, much of the information available is redacted.
If the bill sounds vaguely familiar, it follows the same model as a bill introduced in 1992 that subsequently led to the review, declassification, and release of documents that pertained to the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963.
Getting into the specific language of the bill, it requires that the FBI and other federal agencies give the national archivist copies of civil rights cold-case records. The records cannot contain any redactions or changes, and they must be handed over within two years. The national archive must then compile them in a collection to be made available to the public.
In cases where an agency believes the documents should remain classified, a five-person review board, whose members will be appointed by the president, can decide to delay the disclosure of the documents.
It also bears saying the president stated that he has “constitutional concerns” about giving a review board the power to compel the FBI to hand over information. He also made it clear that he could use executive privilege to restrict access to the records. Nevertheless, the bill titled “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018” was signed into law last month by President Donald Trump.
Reverend Robert Shanklin, who has been a Civil Rights Activist for 52 years, weighed in on his thoughts regarding the bill. He said that civil rights leaders, both past and present, should be overjoyed by the passage of the bill and its signing into law.
Shanklin said that he has faith that the new law will bring to light the many injustices perpetrated during the civil rights era. He hopes that the law will allow for perpetrators who have escaped justice for decades to finally face the consequences of their actions.