White House Finally Moving Forward With Investigations Into Civil Rights Cold Cases Related to Unsolved Murders of Black People

The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board was approved last year under Donald Trump but is just now moving forward under President Joe Biden.

Illustration for article titled White House Finally Moving Forward With Investigations Into Civil Rights Cold Cases Related to Unsolved Murders of Black People
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In 2019, former President Donald Trump signed a law commissioning the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, which would be granted the power to “declassify government files and subpoena new testimony in the hopes of reopening cases or revealing publicly why many were never fully investigated,” according to a Politico report from last year.

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The board is to review dozens of unsolved lynchings of Black people, particularly across the South, in cases that date back decades. The legislation to assemble the board passed Congress with near-unanimous bipartisan support—but, apparently, the Trump administration dragged its feet on the whole thing and nothing got done. Now, President Joe Biden’s White House is reportedly taking action.

According to The Root’s sources in the Biden administration, an announcement will be made Friday afternoon announcing the review will finally be moving forward.

The administration revealed to The Root the first set of board nominees, all of whom the White House hopes will soon be approved by the Senate.

First on the list is professor and historian Dr. Clayborne Carson, who, according to the administration, “devoted most of his professional life to the study of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the movements King inspired.” Carson—who earned his doctorate from UCLA in 1975—has taught at Stanford University where he is Martin Luther King, Jr., Centennial Professor of History (Emeritus). Since he is an expert on all things MLK, Carson was invited by Coretta Scott King in 1985 to “direct a long-term project to edit and publish the authoritative edition of her late husband’s speeches, sermons, correspondence, publications, and unpublished writings.”

Next up is Instruction Archivist and founding member of the Atlanta Black Archives Alliance Gabrielle M. Dudley, who works at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University in Druid Hills, Ga. Dudley develops courses and archives research assignments for graduate and undergraduate students and has taught courses on archives reference, access, and outreach for Clayton State University in Morrow, Ga. She has also taught classes on Black print culture for the California Rare Book School.

Next, we have Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Hank Klibanoff. In 2007, Klibanoff, along with writer and historian Gene Roberts, won the Pulitzer Prize in History for co-authoring the book The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation. Klibanoff is also the creator and host of the narrative history podcast Buried Truths, which is produced by WABE (NPR) in Atlanta.

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The final member of the first set of review board nominees is Margaret Burnham, who has served as a state court judge in Massachusetts, as well as a civil rights lawyer who, in 1970, represented civil rights activist icon Angela Davis. Burnham, who graduated from Tougaloo College in Jackson, Ms., and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, is currently a professor at Northeastern University School of Law where she has taught since 2002.

So hopefully the board member nominees get approved and are able to make real progress in solving these murders and bringing white supremacists to justice or at least giving closure to the family members of the victims.

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According to Politico, the review board was first proposed by Ted Cruz (which is surprising), Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a U.S. senator at the time, and Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who, successfully prosecuted the two Klansmen responsible for the infamous 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham that killed four Black girls in 1963.

Jones expressed concerns to Politico last year that nothing was getting done in reopening the cold cases despite the review board being approved with overwhelming bipartisan support.

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“I am concerned those funds will go unused if the board is not put in place soon,” Jones said. “It passed the Senate with unanimous consent. The president issued a very nice statement when he signed it. And I don’t understand not doing it right now. This needs to be done. I just don’t get it.”

“It’s important as ever,” he continued. “We are talking about a system of justice that has let people down back in the day. And I think these communities need to see and understand the full details of what was going on back in those days. Because if we’re not careful we will make some of the same mistakes. And I think some of those mistakes are being made even now. I think that if we can open these files up, the way Congress intended, then I think it will help with the overall healing process.”

Zack Linly is a poet, performer, freelance writer, blogger and grown man lover of cartoons

DISCUSSION

Makes Me Wonder Why I Even Bring The Thunder

I’m not quite sure I understand why Politico is giving Cruz as much credit as they are. Looking at the legislative tracker and congressional record, he co-sponsored well after the ball got rolling, and perhaps just wanted some “evidence” that, no, you’re the real racist! https://www.congress.gov/bill/115th-congress/senate-bill/3191

III. LEGISLATIVE HISTORY

Senator Doug Jones (D-AL) introduced S. 3191, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, on July 10, 2018, with Senators Claire McCaskill (D-MO) and Kamala Harris (D-CA). On July 26, 2018, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) was added a cosponsor. The bill was referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

[https://www.congress.gov/congressional-report/115th-congress/senate-report/424]

By Mr. JONES (for himself, Mrs. McCaskill, and Ms. Harris):

S. 3191. A bill to provide for the expeditious disclosure of records related to civil rights cold cases, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.

Mr. JONES. Mr. President, I rise to speak on a matter of both personal and national importance.

As many folks know by now, a defining moment in my career as a prosecutor was bringing to justice two former Ku Klux Klansmen for the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. That act of domestic terrorism, and that is exactly what it was, killed four innocent, beautiful little girls. As one of their mothers, Miss Alpha Robertson, described, ``It sounded like the whole world was shaking.’’

There is no doubt it did. The whole world shook as people asked: How could this happen in America, the land of the free and the home of the brave? Despite the feeling that the whole world shook—and indeed the horrific crime did add momentum to the civil rights movement—the criminals responsible for the murder of those four little girls were not brought to justice for decades.

The first came in 1977, 14 years after the fact, by my friend and former Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley. It would be 24 and 25 years later, in 2001 and 2002, that my team of Robert Posey, Jeff Wallace, Don Cochran, Bill Fleming, Ben Herren, and I completed that journey. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was but one of many civil rights-era crimes that have gone unsolved.

Solving and successfully prosecuting an almost 40-year-old case was no easy task, and the effort involved a team of both Federal and State law enforcement. Media coverage also contributed to some key breaks in that case. In fact, it was through the dedicated efforts of my friend Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning journalist at the Jackson, MS, Clarion Ledger, that these unsolved civil rights cases even got a second look. It was when the State of Mississippi opened closed files of a Jim Crow-era State commission that Jerry discovered it might be possible to reopen several unsolved cases, including the cases of Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer. When those cases resulted in convictions, law enforcement officers and communities around the South began to reexamine so many of the unsolved crimes, including the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.

Today there are more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases out there. Many of them are 50 years old or older. Some were investigated a little, some were investigated a lot, but because these were State not Federal crimes most were never really investigated at all.

While it is certainly never too late for justice, years of delays can create serious and sometimes insurmountable obstacles: Memories fade or are lost to death, evidence disappears. Potential defendants also die, taking the details of their crimes to their graves.

Justice can take many forms. It doesn’t always have to be a criminal conviction. One measure of justice—not a full measure but a measure nonetheless—can be achieved through a public examination of the facts and determination of the truth about what happened and why, but because these were criminal cases, the records and files relating to these unsolved cases are often classified or shielded from public view, and sometimes they are literally scattered among various agencies and hard to find.

Yet the victims of these crimes and their families have no less right to justice than they did at the time the crimes were committed, and the American people have a right to know this part of our Nation’s history. As has often been said, if we do not learn from the mistakes of the past, we are doomed to repeat them. In today’s climate, I believe we need to be more than ever vigilant and knowledgeable about the mistakes of the crimes of the civil rights era.

Eleven years ago, nearly to the day, I testified as a lawyer before the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Act. That act created the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Cold Case Division to focus exclusively on solving these unsolved civil rights cases. Since the bill’s passage, the Civil Rights Division has reexamined a number of these cases. I certainly applaud their efforts in doing so, but often, as was my experience, these cases end up being solved with the help of journalists, historians, private investigators, and local law enforcement, but that requires having access to the files. It is not an easy task getting access to these kinds of files. However, by ensuring public access to the files and records relating to these cases, we can expand the universe of people who can help these victims receive the justice they have long since been denied. If we are going to find the truth, it has to start with transparency.

That is why today I am introducing the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, which will require the assembly, collection, and public disclosure of government cold case records about unsolved civil rights cases.

This legislation would not have been possible without the dedicated efforts of students at Hightstown High School in Hightstown, NJ, and their teacher Stuart Wexler, who have joined me in the Gallery today.

It was a couple of years ago, long before becoming a U.S. Senator was really on my radar, that I received a call from Mr. Wexler explaining that he and his students had been stymied in efforts to obtain documents through the Freedom of Information Act about some of these cases. They wanted my support and others for legislation they were drafting to open these files to the public. Since I had already made that suggestion to folks at the Justice Department and others, I enthusiastically endorsed their project. Who would have imagined that 2 or 3 years ago we would be here today?

I thank them for reminding me of our conversations and our shared commitment and for working with me and my staff to make the introduction of this legislation possible today. It means a lot that these young people from New Jersey, who were not even born when these crimes were committed, care so much about this issue.

I also thank a few other folks. I thank John Hamilton and Jay Bosanko at the National Archives for working with the staff, and Professor Hank Klibanoff, who is also with us in the Gallery today, a former journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner for the book ``The Race Beat’’ that examined the role of the journalist during the civil rights movement.

I thank them for their help in drafting this legislation and others who dedicated their lives to working on these cold cases—people like Andrew Sheldon in Atlanta and Alvin Sykes, who worked so hard on the Emmett Till bill and the Emmett Till case; Margaret Burnham, a law professor from Northeast Eastern University Law School; and Paula Johnson from Syracuse University Law School have all done remarkable work in trying to reexamine these cases.

While prosecuting the church bombing cases, I learned how deeply important this work is to anyone who lost a loved one just because someone else hated the color of their skin. It is also important to the communities where these crimes occurred.

It is impossible to express the emotion and satisfaction our team felt at the conclusion of those trials and the guilty verdicts we obtained. It was a privilege to work on cases that meant so much to so many. We have come a long way since 1963, but justice delayed does not have to mean justice denied.

When I testified at the House Judiciary Committee 11 years ago, I noted that we could never prosecute all of these cases but that as a country of compassion, we should find other ways to heal these old wounds. Reconciliation can be the most potent medicine for healing. After all this time, we might not solve every one of these cold cases, but my hope is, our efforts today will, at the very least, help us find some long overdue healing and understanding of the truth.

Each civil rights crime, each victim of that era deserves as much attention and effort as Carol Robertson, Denise McNair, Addie Mae Collins, and Cynthia Morris Wesley, the young girls who lost their lives that Sunday morning in 1963.

[[Page S4878]]

Thank you.

[https://www.congress.gov/congressional-record/2018/07/10/senate-section/article/S4876-1]

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