July 23, 2019

Still Searching for Answers: Civil Rights Cold Cases

The Civil Rights movement started more than seventy years ago as a nonviolent effort to end racial discrimination. Years of marches, demonstrations, speeches, and advocacy ultimately led to laws ending school segregation, employment and housing discrimination, and interference with voting rights based on race. The journey to these developments was not always smooth, however, and despite peaceful motives, civil rights efforts too often resulted in violence and criminal misconduct. Many criminal cases were never prosecuted and families of the victims are still waiting for details about why not and what happened. 

Thanks to years of advocacy by students from Hightstown High School, the families of the victims in these cases are one step closer to getting more details, albeit decades after the fact. At the end of the 115th Congress, both the House of Representatives and the Senate passed the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018. Hightstown students drafted this bill using language from a similar bill passed in 1992 to force the collection and ultimate release of records from the JFK assassination. Congress embraced this new bipartisan bill designed to expeditiously disclose records related to civil rights cold cases as one of its last successful votes before closing the 115th Congress. President Trump signed the bill into law on January 8, 2019 (Public Law No. 115-426).

Passing the law was a critical step, but more legislative and executive branch action is needed. The law tasks the Archivist at the National Archives with creating a “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection” that ensures the physical integrity of these records and coordinating the disclosure process with other federal agencies. The Act also creates a “Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board” to facilitate the review of cold cases, transmission of them to the Archivist, and potential disclosure to the public. The Act does not provide funding for these efforts, but that should change soon.

On June 16, 2019, the House passed an appropriations bill that includes over $4 million to fund the National Archives and creation of the Records Review Board (H.R. 3351). The Senate is expected to consider an appropriations bill soon.

In the meantime, the Act tasks the President with appointing, with the advice and consent of the Senate, five individuals to serve as members of the Board, one of whom must be a historian and one an attorney. The President may consider individuals recommended by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Archivists, and the American Bar Association. Last month, the ABA Board of Governors approved submitting nominees to serve on the Review Board and, by the end of this month, the White House will have nominees from all four associations to consider.

Clearly more work needs to be done before families or the public learn more about cold cases from the Civil Rights movement, but passage of the Act is an important step and we expect more positive steps to occur soon.  To get updates on this issue, follow us @ABAGrassroots.

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