The newly declassified JFK files have been getting a lot of hype recently, but there’s another group of documents that historians and activists would like to release: The federal government’s files on unsolved murders related to the Civil Rights movement.
In fact, a group of Advanced Placement U.S. Government students have drafted a Congressional bill that could make this happen. The students from Hightstown High School in New Jersey based the legislation on the 1992 act that allowed the JFK files to be released in 2017. Representative Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) introduced the students’ bill in March 2017 and it’s been in the House of Representatives’ Committee on Oversight and Government Reform ever since.
Many families have gone decades without knowing the details of a relative’s murder, and the release of these documents could provide the answers they’ve long sought, says Lecia Brooks, the outreach director at the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and director of its Civil Rights Memorial Center in Montgomery, Alabama.
It’s not clear how many unsolved murders there are from this period. On its Civil Rights Memorial, the SPLC displays the names of 40 people who were killed between 1952 and 1968. These include people like Addie Mae Collins, one of the girls killed in the Birmingham church bombing; Reverend George Lee, who was murdered for registering voters; and Emmett Till, whose death helped galvanize the Civil Rights movement. When the SPLC dedicated the memorial in 1989, it had actually identified about 200 murder victims, but could only prove the circumstances surrounding the 40.
The SPLC has continued to investigate these cases by submitting Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests over the years. But many of them are either too heavily redacted or have nothing to add to the case; one reason for this is because federal workers got the details from local white officials who didn’t properly investigate the cases. “Some of the files have maybe a paragraph, a couple of sentences,” Brooks says. “There’s just no information at all.”
As Hightstown student Aditya Shah and his classmates pointed out in a May 2016 Politico article, even getting ahold of these unhelpful documents can take a very, very long time. They wrote that “the median processing time for large FOIA requests to the FBI is 475 days.”
The Department of Justice is actually obligated to reinvestigate these cases under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crimes Reauthorization Act of 2016, but Brooks says it hasn’t been acting aggressively enough. And time is running out.
“Witnesses are dying, alleged perpetrators are dying, so this information will be lost soon,” she says, adding that “in some cases, it’s lost already.”
Recent revelations from the white woman who accused Emmett Till of making lewd comments demonstrate the importance of investigating cold cases while the people involved are still alive. In January 2017, Vanity Fairreported Carolyn Bryant Donham’s admission that she had lied about Till making “verbal and physical advances.”
Lost opportunities testify to the need to act quickly, as well. Journalist Stanley Nelson, author of a book about Ku Klux Klan murders, toldThe Clarion-Ledger that “I didn’t discover one key suspect in a local 1964 Klan murder until three months after the suspect had died.” He continued that if the federal government is not going to reinvestigate the cases, then it should “share the unredacted files with journalists—we’ll do it.”
Brooks emphasizes that these investigations are an important way to bring closure to families that never got to find out what happened to their relatives.
“During the time of these murders was a time where the U.S. government openly devalued the lives of African Americans who were killed,” she says. “So now it’s our government’s opportunity to show that we’ve learned and we’ve grown and we care about you.”
So far, the Department of Justice hasn’t demonstrated that it feels the same sense of urgency. As Shah and his classmates wrote in their Politico article, “almost all of the civil rights cold cases that have been resolved in the past 40 years owe that resolution to the efforts of reporters, investigative journalists and local prosecutors.” Meanwhile, “the number of civil rights cold cases resolved by the DOJ and FBI since the Emmett Till Act was passed is still a heart-rending zero.”