In this particularly precarious moment for civil rights in our country, it has become unusual to hear about positive developments in the civil rights arena. Last month, however, there was occasion to celebrate one such development, where students from New Jersey’s Hightown High School saw their efforts to pass a bill—one that would create an archive of documents from civil rights cold cases—come to fruition. The archive would provide access to important information concerning past unsolved cases and the circumstances surrounding them, including information regarding how a loved one died and the ensuing investigation (if any was conducted). These cases typically involved race-based violence, like lynchings, unjustified police shootings, and attacks carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. In most of these cases, all of the participants and witnesses are deceased, so they have been designated “closed.” However, in having access to this information, some of the victims’ families might be allowed the possibility of finding some sort of closure.
Beginning in 2015, the students of Hightown High School began a dogged campaign to ensure the creation of the national archive. Using Twitter and other social media to target the President and high-profile supporters, as well as by taking trips to visit elected representatives in person, the students exerted enough pressure to gain bipartisan support for what would become known as the Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act. This proposed Act focuses on cases from 1940-1980. It passed unanimously in the Senate and 376-6 in the House. However, due to the fact that the bill would expire when the congressional session ended at the beginning of January, the students still needed the President’s signature by then, or the bill would be dead in the water.
Thankfully, the students received word last month that the President did indeed sign the bill in time, and stated his support for the bill’s funding in Congress. Even so, however, the President still had to qualify the signing by releasing a statement detailing possible concerns about the review process and the impact such a public release of records might have, especially as it might conflict with “executive privilege.” This concern seems premature, as the legislative process for the bill isn’t over: the President still needs to appoint a civilian panel to review and oversee production of the documents.
Of course, this information should have been accessible a long time ago, but even delayed victories should be celebrated these days, especially when they are secured by a younger generation. In fact, this might be the first time that high school students have drafted a federal bill that would eventually be signed into law. The novel means through which this legislation was lobbied is also notable, and shows that there might exist a more accessible and widely-available avenue for citizens to exert pressure on politicians and effect social change.
And, it should be noted, the passing of the Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act is in reality no small victory, simply by virtue of the possibility that access to these records might afford some sort of closure for families who have suffered through decades of not knowing what happened to their friends or loved ones.
This is a positive development, and hopefully unearthing these disgraceful injustices will prevent any similar ones from happening ever again. Transparency, however, is just the first step.
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