National Archives News

Senate Approves Nominees for Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board

By Shawn Morton | National Archives News

WASHINGTON, April 5, 2022 — In February, the U.S. Senate approved President Joe Biden’s nominees for the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board.

The board was established by the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018, which was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump on January 8, 2019.

This law requires the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to create the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection and requires federal agencies to turn over copies of any remaining records from Civil Rights Era cold cases to NARA for inclusion in the collection and release to the public.

If agencies decide that records must still be protected, then the law establishes dates for periodic re-review of the records for release.

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Telegram from Mamie Bradley to President Dwight D. Eisenhower regarding the Emmett Till Case.

All of the members of the board, approved on February 19, 2022, have vast experience in working with records and unsolved criminal cases from the Civil Rights Era. Each member brings a unique experience and set of skills to the board.

  • Margaret Burnham earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. After many years serving as a practicing lawyer and a judge, she is currently a professor of law at Northeastern University. She is the author of many essays and law review articles. She also had experience on the ground during the height of the civil rights movement, serving on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Mississippi in the 1960s.
  • Gabrielle Dudley earned a master’s degree in library and information science from the University of South Carolina. She is currently an Instruction Archivist and Associate Librarian at Emory University and had previous teaching positions at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Clayton State University.
  • Hank Klibanoff earned a graduate degree from Northwestern University and spent years as a journalist for major U.S. newspapers, including the Boston Globe and Philadelphia Inquirer, and as the managing editor for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He is currently a Professor of Practice and the Director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Emory University.
  • Brenda Stevenson earned her Ph.D. in history from Yale University. She has been a history professor at UCLA since 1990, and she serves as the inaugural Hilary Rodham Clinton Endowed Chair in Women’s History at St. John’s College, Oxford. She has published articles, essays and books on the history of slavery, including her recent book, What is Slavery?

The board is charged with reviewing the records of Civil Rights era cold criminal cases of murders and other racially motivated violence that occurred between 1940 and 1979. Many of these records are still closed to the public.

The board will examine agency decisions to withhold access and to engage with them to determine if the records should still be withheld.

Legislation sponsor Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL) said his “hope is that this legislation will help us find some long-overdue healing and understanding of the truth in the more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases that exist today.”

The legislation, which was modeled on the JFK Assassination Records Act, was passed with the assistance of a determined lobbying effort by teacher Stuart Wexler and the students of Hightown High School in New Jersey.

Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero said this law “will reveal that the many years of racism, pain, loss, humiliation, and marginalization have not been forgotten.”

In 2008, Congress passed the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, named for the young man who was brutally killed in 1955. The act required the Justice Department to investigate and, if possible, prosecute cold cases from the Civil Rights Era.

Under this law, the Justice Department identified and investigated 132 cases involving 151 victims of racially motivated violence. Of those cases, only two have been brought to prosecution. Several are still open, but 104 of those cases were closed with no further action, thereby remaining cold cases.

These cases represent only a portion of the unsolved or unprosecuted racially motivated crimes from the Civil Rights era. The records of many of these cases remain closed to the public.

The General Services Administration is tasked with providing administrative support to the board, and the board will be hiring an executive director and staff.

There is an additional slot on the board to be filled by a Presidential appointment.

Shawn Morton is the Deputy Director of Congressional Affairs for the National Archives and Records Administration.