The civil rights movement gave millions of people a new share in the American Dream. Tragically, many violent crimes committed against black families struggling for equality during this time remain unsolved.
This month, the U.S. Senate moved one step closer to passing bipartisan legislation that would help these families find justice when the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs passed our Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act. This crucial bill would release information on cold cases from the civil rights era, with the hope that additional sunlight and public interest would bring revelation, justice and closure where these things have long been lacking.
Through the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, activists fought for racial equality at great cost, suffering beatings, bombings, lynchings and other forms of harassment and violence simply for seeking to fully realize their rights as Americans under the Constitution.
Some crimes, such as the murder of Emmett Till and the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, remain branded on our national consciousness as among the darkest days in American history. Others, like the car bombing in 1967 of Wharlest Jackson, treasurer of the Natchez, Miss., chapter of the NAACP, are less widely remembered — though his murder was the focus of a massive FBI investigation at the time — and remain unsolved to this day. Still others, such as the 1955 shooting of 16-year-old John Earl Reese in Gregg County, Texas, resulted in the release of perpetrators with little or no punishment.
While most of the perpetrators of these horrific crimes have never been identified and brought to justice, there have been notable successes like the convictions of Byron De La Beckwith for the murder of Medgar Evers; Sam Bowers for the murder of Vernon Dahmer; and Tommy Blanton and Bobby Frank Cherry for the murder of four girls in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.
However, in many cases, witnesses were intimidated into silence and evidence was intentionally brushed under the rug by corrupt officials. Victims and their families were often afraid to pursue justice against their attackers. And despite the best efforts of law enforcement in many cases, they did not have access to modern forensic methods, and trails went cold.
Records and evidence from many of these cases sit locked away in files and vaults, outside of the public eye. As memories fade and witnesses, victims and perpetrators of decades-old crimes pass away, our window to solve these cold cases shrinks.
The legislation would disclose case records so that private detectives, historians, victims and victims' families can access these files, pursue leads and document these tragic events.
Our legislation would require government offices to submit files and records about civil rights cold cases to the National Archives and Records Administration. This office would then create a collection of documents that would be publicly disclosed, although for certain reasons disclosure of some information may be postponed.
Postponement would be appropriate where disclosure would clearly and demonstrably be expected to cause identifiable or describable damage to national security, military defense, law enforcement, intelligence operations, or foreign relations; pose substantial unwarranted harm to a living person; constitute a grave breach of personal privacy; compromise a confidentiality agreement between law enforcement and a cooperating individual; or interfere with ongoing law enforcement proceedings.
This legislation establishes a Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board as an independent agency of impartial private citizens to facilitate the review and public disclosure of government records related to these civil rights cold cases. The board would also be empowered to hold hearings and render decisions on determinations by government offices that seek to postpone the disclosure of such records, while acting as a conduit for information volunteered by the public.
Many journalists and organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting have called for a decentralized, crowd-sourced approach to breaking cold cases by making their information public, which is exactly the intent of our legislation.
We are hopeful this legislation will add another victorious footnote to the legacy of the civil rights movement and allow the American people to seek justice for their countrymen who were wrongly persecuted for the color of their skin and their fight for equality.