Students write bill to open civil rights files
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — U.S. Sen. Doug Jones introduced a bill this month that would clear the way to open records from civil rights cold cases — a bill written by high school students.
The Alabama Democrat, who was joined on Capitol Hill by 18 of the students who helped craft it, knows these cases well. In the early 2000s, he led the successful prosecutions of Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton in connection with the Ku Klux Klan’s bombing of a Birmingham church that killed four girls in 1963.
Jones, whose bill is co-sponsored by Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, said these records can play an important role, not only for the victims’ families, but for communities and even relatives of those who committed these crimes.
“An incredible level of healing and reconciliation can accompany knowledge,” he said. “Given the age of these cases and the fact it is highly unlikely that these cases could be resurrected, this is the way to get that healing and reconciliation.”
The students’ teacher, Stuart Wexler, said when he told his students in 2015 about how many civil rights cold cases had gone unsolved and how many of those files remained redacted, they were upset.
Abigail Nickerson, now a 19-year-old junior at Vanderbilt University, said she and her fellow high school students voted to create a bill to address the problem.
“I could see that this was a chance to work towards something far more important than a 5 on the AP Government Exam,” she said, “something that could directly impact the lives of hundreds of Americans and work towards addressing past injustices in our country.”
The bill would create an independent review board of experts to analyze and release government files on civil rights cold cases. The bill mirrors the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which cleared the way for releasing thousands of documents related to the assassination.
On Jan. 31, 1964, Louis Allen was fatally ambushed in front of his home near Liberty, Mississippi, not long after he identified the killer of Herbert Lee as a Mississippi lawmaker.
Allen’s grandson, who bears the same name, said he has seen the FBI documents on the case. “The majority of it is redacted,” he said.
Opening the records so that the family can finally learn the truth “would mean as much as it would to a person who grew up in South Africa and had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,” he said.
Even without justice, he said, opening the records would provide “at least a measure of hope that the system has changed.”
Louisiana journalist Stanley Nelson, who is now investigating the 1965 killing of deputy Oneal Moore in Bogalusa, said if the bill passed, it would aid investigations like his “by light years.”
Nelson, who was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work in reopening the 1964 killing of Frank Morris, said one of the most frustrating things is so many parts of the FBI files are redacted, blotting out the names of suspects or witnesses in cases.
As a result, it “may take months, if not years, trying to figure out who they are and then figure out if they are alive or dead,” he said.
If the bill were to pass, he said, “what has been a constant struggle the last 10 years of my life would suddenly be a struggle no more.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff, an Emory University journalism professor who works with students in investigating civil rights cold cases, said government “spends a lot of time with problems for which there are no solutions. In this case, it strikes me as a simple problem with a simple solution. And Doug Jones has that solution in the bill.”
One of the students who worked on the bill, James Ward, a 17-year-old senior at Hightstown High School in New Jersey, noted that the Justice Department has closed 113 civil rights cold cases.
“At the very least, the families of victims deserve to see the files of the cold cases,” he said. “Additionally, every solved civil rights cold case has been figured out with the help of investigative reporters, historians and even high school students. By giving the public access to the case records, the possibility to solve any civil rights cold case remains open. There is no statute of limitations on murder.”
Oslene Johnson, now an 18-year-old marketing communications student at Berkeley College, said passage of this bill would “signify to our entire nation that the people whose lives and livelihoods were stolen because of racial discrimination mattered then, and they and their families matter now.”
Ali Husaini, 18, who just graduated from Hightstown and is headed to Franklin & Marshall College this fall, led class discussions on the best strategies for approaching lawmakers.
He sees the bill as something that could affirm the allegiance we pledge each day to our nation, enabling the nation to address its “complicated civil rights history” while staying “true to its core foundation of justice under the law.”
Samantha Harrison, a 17-year-old senior at Hightstown, has been involved in contacting lawmakers and meeting with their staffs, urging them to pass the bill.
“It’s showed me that even though I am not old enough to vote and I’m not an adult yet, I can still have a voice and make an impact in our government,” she said.
If the bill were to become law, she said, “I honestly would probably cry, cry for me, for my fellow students, for supporters and for the families of the people who have faced racial injustices.”
Information from: The Clarion Ledger, http://www.clarionledger.com