Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Doug Jones (D-Ala.) introduced legislation on July 10 mandating the review, declassification, and release of government records related to unsolved criminal civil rights cases. 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.
In addition, some of these records, although almost 50 years old, remain classified unnecessarily or shielded from public view. The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 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. U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is an original co-sponsor of the legislation.
“Having prosecuted two civil rights cold cases in Alabama, I know firsthand the importance of having every available piece of information at your disposal,” said Senator Jones, a former U.S. Attorney. “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. 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.”
Jones, who successfully prosecuted two of the former KKK members responsible for the bombing of the 16thStreet Baptist Church, has long been an advocate for greater access to civil rights cold case records. In 2007, he 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.
“We’ve made progress ensuring these heinous acts of violence and hatred are able to be brought to justice—but we have more work to do,” said Senator Claire McCaskill, former Jackson County Prosecutor. “Helping families and advocates get access to these documents could help their push towards justice for these long unsolved cold cases.”
“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 Hank Klibanoff, Director, Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University. “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.
Senator Jones’ bill was modeled after the President John F. Kennedy, Jr. Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which created an orderly and effective process for reviewing, declassifying, and releasing thousands of documents related to the assassination of President Kennedy. Read a detailed overview of the legislation here.
The legislation Senator Jones introduced was originally envisioned by students from Hightstown High School in Hightstown, New Jersey, and their teacher, Stuart Wexler.