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Civil Rights-era Cold Cases 

casket till.jpg

"I couldn’t bear the thought of people being horrified by the sight of my son. But on the other hand, I felt the alternative was even worse. After all, we had avert- ed our eyes for far too long, turn- ing away from the ugly reality facing us as a nation.
Let the world see what I’ve seen," said Mamie Till Bradley. Courtesy MTB



Under review by new board; but the clock is ticking against them


ears after legislation creating it was signed into law, the Senate has finally confirmed members to a board whose task is to help compile and release records surrounding the racially motivated crimes that have lain unsolved since the Civil Rights era.

For decades, investigators, journalists and victims’ families have long sought answers surrounding bombings and shootings committed during the struggle for civil rights whose perpetrators were never caught or who skated through the justice system.

They’ve waited on record requests filed through the Freedom of Information Act. They’ve tried to piece together what happened by poring over the all-caps, teletype dispatches that pinged between FBI offices that, when initially released, were run through with blocks of redactions.

In 2019, President Donald Trump signed into law a bipartisan piece of legislation originally drafted by a group of high schoolers that treats records of these cold cases that happened between 1940 to 1979 like the records relating to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which were compiled at the National Archives and made available to the public.

In mid-February, the Senate confirmed four individuals to the Civil Rights Cold Case Review Board: a former journalist who won the Pulitzer-prize in history, a law professor who was the first Black female judge in Massachusetts, an instruction archivist and a history professor at University of California, Los Angeles.

Their task? To determine just what records fall under the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 and whether a document’s release should be delayed.

But before work begins in earnest, the members must be sworn in and there’s paperwork to do, staff to hire. 

“That will take some time,” said William Bosanko, chief operating officer for the National Archives and Records Administration.

But time is not on the board’s side.

As the administration in Washington changed hands, the board remained unfilled. The clock is ticking, as the law says the review board’s work will end four years after the law first passed, although the board could vote to extend that time for a year further.

“Absent congressional intervention and a change in the law, the board doesn’t really have a fighting chance. They’re going to need more time in order to deal with these very important and very weighty issues around these cold cases,” Bosanko said. 

Those weighty issues include the act’s scope. A couple years ago, the federal government compiled and reviewed 161 unsolved homicides carried out during the struggle for civil rights. The cases included the 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the Mississippi Burning case involving the deaths of Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney.

But Bosanko said the Cold Case Records Collection Act was written to encompass more than those cases and could include, for instance, violations to the Fair Housing Act.

There’s also the sheer volume of records, where Department of Justice documents stored at the National Archives that could fall under the act is not measured in the thousands of pages, but in the thousands of cubic feet.

Bosanko said the National Archives has already identified some of the low hanging fruit, some of the most notable Civil Rights-era cold cases, cases that the administration suspects may be of interest to the board and whose records they could quickly get in front of the group.

The archives, however, is stymied when it comes to crafting and issuing guidance to other federal agencies because it does not yet know what the board will determine is the scope of the act.

In the meantime, some departments have been at work. For instance, in a footnote of a report, the Criminal Section of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division said between July 2019 to September 2020 it spent nearly 1,800 hours working on issues surrounding cold cases, including compliance with the records collection act.

In June 2021, the White House announced nominations to the five-member board. The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs held a confirmation hearing for four nominees in mid-January.

Introducing the nominees during the remote hearing conducted over teleconferencing software, former Sen. Doug Jones said he couldn’t think of a better group for the committee to consider. The former prosecutor who helped try two of the Klansmen responsible for the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birming- ham, Ala., said the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Act was one of his signature pieces of legislation.

“There have been a handful of people over the last 20 or 30 years … that have taken a real interest in these cold civil rights cases,” Jones said in a later interview, and two of those individuals were former journalist Hank Klibanoff and law professor Margaret Burnham.

Klibanoff, a professor at Emory University, is director of Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at the univer- sity and Burnham, a law professor at Northeastern University School of Law founded the school’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project.

“They were just naturals to me because of their interest. And they see this in a bigger picture,” Jones added, saying the two educators see the importance a complete record for truth and reconciliation for the communities affected by the old violence.

During the hearing, Burnham said the nomination to the board was the highlight of her career working for civil rights. In 1977, Burnham became the first Black woman to sit on the bench in Massachusetts, on Boston’s municipal court, “Serving ordinary working people in their disputes that arise in their lives,” she said.  

After a career as a civil rights attorney and a law professor, Burnham said in an interview the nomination to the review board brought her full circle back to public service.

Burnham began looking into Civil Rights-era cold cases after President George W. Bush signed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act in 2007, legislation that directed the federal government to take another look at many of the cold cases from that time.

She said she realized the act wouldn’t reach every case of racial violence that ended up with a death. Working with students, she began investigating, relying on legal expertise to navigate the FOIA system to obtain docu- ments from the government.

Burnham said she wanted to learn how the law failed, and how federal prosecutors at the time managed pro- fessional ethics.

“I was interested in what federal prosecutors in these local areas did,” Burnham said. “They had to thread a needle between satisfying the local power structures with whom they were quite connected and upon whom they were sometimes dependent, while at the same time, meeting the new interests that were emanating from Washington to these cases.”

Klibanoff said in his prepared statement to the committee that the board’s task was not to solve crimes, but to make government records more readily available.

“I have seen with my own eyes and felt in my own heart the extraordinary good that can come when families of those who were killed sit down with a couple of hundred pages of government records and unlock decades of mysteries, myths and misunderstandings,” Klibanoff wrote in his written testimony to the committee.

Gabrielle Dudley, an instruction archivist at Emory University’s Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library told the committee she understood how there was a balance between the release of records while protecting individuals’ privacy.

When Dudley was in high school, growing up in the Birmingham area, some of the klansmen responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing faced prosecution. As an intern at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, she collected oral histories from individuals, some of whom would mention the people they knew who were murdered, she said in an interview.

“You would call and they would just, it was almost like they were just ready to tell these stories,” Dudley said.

As the board is preparing to begin its work, lawmakers are trying to give it more time. In February, Georgia Senator Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, introduced a bill that would buy the board three more years, extending the time it meets from 2024 to 2027.

At the end of March, the Civil Rights Cold Case Investigations Support Act of 2022 passed the Senate Homeland Security Committee. A spokesman for Cruz said in a statement that the senator was pleased to work on this bill and he hoped the extension would allow victims and their families to find justice.

Stuart Wexler, the history teacher at Hightown High School in New Jersey whose students originally drafted the bill that became the cold case records act, said the most pressing issue surrounding the act and the release of the cold case records is the extension being considered by Congress.

“That’s obviously the number one priority because the board is not going to have time to do its work,” Wexler said.

As a high-schooler, Wexler was fascinated by the JFK assassination and he followed the early meetings of the board formed to review those assassination records in the 90s. That review board, in its hunt for records, accepted letters from the public offering tips and called witnesses, Wexler said.

For the board reviewing the JFK assassination records, “a big issue for them was trying to find autopsy materials and to authenticate what autopsy materials they had,” Wexler said. “So they call a bunch of people

like the photographer involved with the autopsy, the autopsy doctors.”

According to the legislation, The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board has the ability to issue sub- poenas for records and its members receive security clearances.

Meanwhile, National Archives COO Bosanko said he hopes that the records once released will allow people more accessibility to the records. No longer will people have to plan a trip to the National Archives’ facility at say, College Park, Maryland.

Once the project is complete, with records of old cold cases posted online, he hopes that, for instance, a rural schoolteacher could drive home lessons surrounding the struggle for civil rights by examining events that happened in that locale.

“For me, being the most open and transparent we can as a nation with our history,” Bosanko said, “and then making it discoverable and usable, that’s what this act is about.”

Courthouse News.

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