Alabama U.S. Sen. Doug Jones introduced a bill on Tuesday that would mandate the release of government records related to unsolved civil rights cases — a bill written by a group of high school students.
Jones worked with a group of students from Hightstown High School in Hightstown, N.J., and their civics and government teacher, Stuart Wexler in drafting and introducing the bill the students first envisioned in their Advanced Placement U.S. Government classroom.
Jones says the legislation is necessary because the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), as implemented, has prevented the timely and adequate disclosure of executive branch records, and congressional records are not subject to public disclosure under FOIA. FOIA documents are also notoriously redacted beyond practical use.
The bill, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, if passed, remedies this problem by requiring the National Archives and Records Administration to create a collection of government documents related to civil rights cold cases and to make those documents available to the public.
For Jones, the issue is personal
Prior to his time in the Senate, Jones, a former prosecutor, is best known for prosecuting Ku Klux Klansmen responsible for killing four black girls in the 1963 bombing of the 1963 Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham as a U.S. attorney.
“Having prosecuted two civil rights cold cases in Alabama, I know firsthand the importance of having every available piece of information at your disposal,” Jones said. “This bill will ensure public access to records relating to these cases and will expand the universe of people who can help investigate these crimes, including journalists, historians, private investigators, local law enforcement, and others.”
Jones continued, “We might not solve every one of these cold cases, but my hope is that this legislation will help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth in the more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases that exist today.”
In 2007, Jones testified to the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act that established a special initiative in the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate civil rights cold cases. He spoke about the difficulty of prosecuting these cases so many years after the crimes were committed and pointed to the importance of sharing information in order to find the truth.
Jones is not the only one who believes in the importance of his bill. Hank Klibanoff, Director, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University, says if passed it would “have on thousands of families.”
“It is hard to overstate the positive impact that Sen. Doug Jones’s proposed Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act would have on thousands of families who, 40 to 60 years later, have no idea how a father, grandfather, aunt or brother came to a violent death in the modern civil rights era,” said Klibanoff. “As a journalist and historian who relies on government-held records in these civil rights cold cases, it’s important to know that our purposes are simple: To learn the truth, to seek justice where there may be a living perpetrator, to tell the untold stories, and to bring closure to families of victims, and find opportunities for racial reconciliation.”
The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 will:
- Require the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to establish a collection of cold case records about unsolved criminal civil rights cases that government offices must publicly disclose in the collection without redaction or withholding.
- Establish a Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board as an independent agency of impartial private citizens to facilitate the review, transmission to NARA, and public disclosure of government records related to such cases.
Read a detailed overview of the legislation here.
Watch Jones testify before the House Judiciary Committee in 2007: