By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
President Donald Trump this week signed a bill into law after a months-long bipartisan effort between Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to provide public access to unsolved civil rights crime documents.
The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act requires the review, declassification, and release of government records related to unsolved criminal civil rights cases. Congressman Bobby L. Rush (D-ILL) led the campanion legislation in the House of Representatives.
“This moment has been years in the making,” Jones said upon enactment of the bill.
“I want to thank my colleagues Senator Ted Cruz and Congressman Bobby Rush for their strong partnership throughout this effort, which started with a group of talented high school students who encountered a problem and wanted to find a solution. I am excited that their classroom idea and the solution we worked on together has now been signed into law by the President of the United States.”
The legislation was actually first created by students from Hightstown High School in Hightstown, New Jersey and their teacher, Mr. Stuart Wexler. The bill is 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.
Cruz thanked Jones and others who worked on the bill, saying that this act will allow justice for those victims’ families still seeking closure.
“I am grateful to have worked with Sen. Jones on this important bill,” Cruz said. “The unsolved crimes committed against Americans seeking their rightful place in the American dream during the civil rights movement casts a dark shadow on an important chapter of American history. It is my hope that, with additional sunlight to these cold cases, there will be revelation, justice, and closure where it has long been lacking.”
The bill 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.
“I also appreciate the comments the President made in his signing statement in support of our legislation and his encouragement that Congress appropriate funds for its implementation. This law sends a powerful message to those impacted by these horrific crimes and to young folks in this country who want to make a difference. I know how deeply painful these Civil Rights-era crimes remain for communities so by shedding light on these investigations I hope we can provide an opportunity for healing and closure,” Jones said.
This new bill would allow the reopening of such cold cases like the infamous murder case of Emmit Till in Mississippi and the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that killed four girls and that Sen. Doug Jones has a personal connection to. Jones successfully prosecuted two of the former KKK members responsible for the bombing and 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.
The act also establishes a Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board to facilitate the review, transmission to NARA, and disclosure of government records related to such cases.
Caroline Beck is a reporter living in Montgomery. You can reach her at Car[email protected] or follow her on Twitter @CarolineBeckADN.