The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘From students in high school all the way to the president’s desk.’ How a government class fought for the release of unsolved FBI civil rights case files.

The Hightstown, N.J., group may be the first-ever high school class to write a successful bill, but funding must still be secured and a review panel appointed.

Students from Hightstown High School in New Jersey stand with Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala), center, and teacher Stuart Wexler, far right, after Jones introduced their bill calling for the release of civil rights cold-case files. (Cissy Jackson)

There are family members who still want to know why Willie Edwards, a 24-year-old husband and father, was abducted and beaten by members of the Ku Klux Klan in 1957, then forced to leap to his death from a bridge over the Alabama River near Montgomery, Ala.

There are still friends of Louis Allen, a farmer and father of four in Liberty, Miss., who want to know why he was shot to death on his own property in 1964, possibly by the county sheriff.

The deaths are just two of 128 lynchings of black Southerners in the decades after World War II that have been investigated by the Justice Department. But its civil rights division, and a unit formed specifically to revisit such cases, analyzes the episodes solely with an eye toward prosecution. Most of the participants and witnesses are now dead, leading the department to rule most of the cases “closed.”

But a group of high school students in New Jersey learned that many families want another kind of justice: The information about how their loved one died. How it was investigated. Why it wasn’t prosecuted. Why it happened.

So the Hightstown High School Advanced Placement government and politics class set out to make sure details of the long-ago cases were not hidden forever. The students drafted a bill requiring all the civil rights cold-case files to be collected in one place and released to the public, without the bureaucracy and delay of the Freedom of Information Act. The class lobbied to line up sponsors, get the bill out of committees in both chambers of Congress, have it voted on and approved just before Christmas, and then signed into law last month by President Trump.

A number of congressional historians believe it may be the first time a high school class successfully drafted a federal bill that was signed into law on any subject, much less one exposing some of the darkest secrets of the events that helped inspire America’s civil rights movement.

The students weren’t born during the civil rights era and none of the crimes happened in New Jersey, but they understood the importance of unearthing records that could provide solace, and answers, to those interested in the unvarnished facts of the cases.

“The civil rights movement continues to this day,” said Ali Husaini, 19, who took the AP government class immediately after the violent uprising in Charlottesville in 2017. “Racism today is a continuation of racism in the past, no matter where you are in the country, and fixing the problem begins with addressing its past.”

Unsolved and overlooked: Investigating cold cases of the civil rights era

“The American people have a right to know this part of our nation’s history,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), as he introduced the bill on the Senate floor last July. As a U.S. attorney, Jones successfully prosecuted the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham more than 37 years after it happened. He said in an interview that after the bombing case ended in 2002: “It had such a healing effect for families and communities. It was just incredible. Not just in Birmingham but all over the country. … Not every case can be prosecuted. But the importance of finding out the facts and getting to the truth is still important.”

Jones said the Hightstown students first contacted him in 2016, before he even considered a run for the Senate. “It is such a wonderful story about how government should work on many levels,” he said. “From students in high school all the way to the president’s desk.”

Although the bill was signed, the legislative process isn’t over, and neither is the work of the Hightstown AP government class. A civilian panel must be appointed by the president to oversee the review and release of the cold-case files, and the Congressional Budget Office estimates it would cost about $10 million to finance the operation. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), a bill co-sponsor whose district includes Hightstown, said she would push the House Appropriations Committee to fund the panel, as authorized by the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018. Jones said he will be making a similar request in the Senate, and said, “I think we can get this done this year.”

“We need to be transparent as a country,” Coleman said, “with regards to history and our current affairs.”

The initiative for the cold-case act started with Stuart Wexler, the teacher of the Hightstown High government class and author of several books on domestic terrorism. In 2015, he was discussing the Birmingham bombing case in class, and the fact that newspaper reporter Jerry Mitchell had discovered evidence in public records that led to prosecutions in 2001 and 2002. Still, there were dozens of unsolved cases where the records were sealed.

Wexler said he asked the class, “Should we try to do something? Out of that discussion came the idea of doing something along the lines of pursuing a JFK Records Act for the civil rights cases.” The John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act was passed in 1992, and has gradually forced the FBI, the CIA and other agencies to release nearly all of their files on the killing of the president in 1963, though Trump last year ordered some records withheld for three more years at the request of the investigating agencies.

“None of us had ever seen a congressional bill before,” said Oslene Johnson, 19, who was in the first class to work on the project. The students divided into groups and began drafting a bill. Then in 2016, they began taking field trips to Washington to lobby the staffs of senators and representatives to sponsor the bill. In May of that year, student Aditya Shah published an op-ed in Politico headlined, “How to get justice in civil rights cold cases,” which outlined their effort.

“If any justice is to be served and closure brought to the victims’ families,” Shah wrote, “the government must ‘crowd source’ the investigation and allow the public to review the raw case materials.”

The article caught the eye of Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.), and he agreed to launch the bill in the House. Ryan Johnson, a spokesman for Rush, said the veteran congressman was “inspired by these students’ dedication and persistence and wanted to stand with them on this meaningful legislative journey.”

Rush waited until 2017 to introduce the bill so that it would have an entire session of Congress to work its way through committees in both houses. In November 2017, the prosecutor of the Birmingham bombings the class had studied — Jones — won a surprise election to the Senate after the campaign of his Republican opponent, Roy Moore, imploded in scandal. Jones agreed to carry the bill in the Senate.

“When he introduced the bill,” said student James Ward, “we were in the Senate gallery. When he referenced the school and the class, it was really amazing.” Ward and Wexler said that Jones’s speech on the Senate floor apparently inspired Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), then presiding over the Senate, to co-sponsor the bill, and soon the bill had co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle in both chambers.

Meanwhile, the class was invited to Selma, Ala., by Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham, whose Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project has been investigating cases of racial injustice in the South. Only Wexler and two of the students were able to travel to Selma, but it was a powerful experience.

“It’s something different when you’re experiencing and talking to these people,” said Anna Trancozo, who is now a college freshman. “Family members of some of the victims, that was what really hit home. A lot of the people are still alive and still living with what they went through.”

Among the people the students met in Selma was Josephine Bolling McCall. In 1947, her grandfather, Elmore Bolling, a beloved deacon and businessman, was shot to death outside Montgomery by a white man who supposedly claimed Bolling had insulted the man’s wife. The man was never charged. Josephine Bolling McCall investigated the case for 30 years and found that the true cause was the white man’s resentment over Bolling’s superior business operations.

“He was jealous and he filled him with bullets,” McCall told the Los Angeles Times last year.

The students’ cold-case bill passed out of the House Oversight Committee in October, then the Senate Homeland Security Committee in December, followed by a unanimous voice vote in the Senate on Dec. 17 and a vote of 376 to 6 in the House on Dec. 21. It headed to the White House with the clock ticking on the end of the two-year congressional session.

Students began tweeting at the president, at Trump’s friends, at broadcasters watched by Trump, at anyone who might influence the president to sign the bill during the government shutdown. At one point, Hightstown teachers stopped all classes at once and allowed their students to tweet messages to the president, Ward said.

Trump signed the bill Jan. 8, but issued a three-page statement indicating he had qualms with delegating authority to a review board. “I have signed the act on the understanding that the public disclosure of records may be postponed where necessary to protect executive privilege,” Trump said. Still, he noted that the bill did not contain any funding for the project, and concluded, “I encourage the Congress to appropriate such funds.”

Wexler said crowdsourcing the civil rights cases, with journalists, historians and family members examining the files, could turn up leads that would produce new developments, in addition to satisfying the curiosity of victims’ families.

“People want different kinds of justice,” said Trancozo, whether in the form of simply learning the details of a case or getting a street sign dedicated to a loved one. “A lot of people are still trying to reach that.”