Hightstown High School students who were part of a three-year effort to pass a federal law opening up the files on 113 “cold cases” – unsolved racially motivated murders that occurred between 1940 and 1980 – have been honored by state Senator Linda Greenstein (D-Mercer, Middlesex).
Sen. Greenstein presented the students with a resolution recognizing their efforts to craft the federal Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act, which was signed into law in January by President Donald Trump. The law focuses on murders that coincided with the civil rights movement.
The Civil Rights Cold Case Act is the first federal law to have been created and pushed through the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate by high school students. It is patterned after the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.
The Cold Case Act calls for federal agencies – including the Federal Bureau of Investigation – to provide copies of civil rights cold case files to the National Archivist within two years. Nothing in the records may be blacked out or changed.
A five-member review panel will determine whether any information should be withheld, if an agency claims that certain information cannot be released to the public. The panel will be appointed by the President.
“No other high school class has ever accomplished this feat in the history of this country,” Sen. Greenstein said. “They fought fought for this bill, gained bipartisan support and saw their idea signed into law by the President of the United States of America.
“They are a testament to what is possible when you fight for what you believe in,” Sen. Greenstein said.
What the students believed in was the right for the families of 113 victims of unsolved murders to find out what happened to their loved ones – other than that they had been murdered.
Those 113 unsolved cases were reopened in 2008 under the Emmett Till Act, but all of them were closed bu the U.S. Department of Justice without having been solved.
Hightstown High School history teacher Stuart Wexler has always been interested in the racial and political violence that occurred during the 1960’s, and he brought it up to the students in his Advanced Placement government class.
Wexler encouraged the students to try to find out what happened to the 113 victims. They filed federal Freedom of Information Act requests about specific cases, but they were stymied by the lack of access to the files.
Once the students realized how tragic and unjust it was for the victims’ families to be denied information, they began to work on a way to address the issue under Wexler’s guidance. That was the genesis of the legislation they wanted to write and have adopted.
The students found willing lawmakers who were interested in sponsoring it and pushing it through, but it was not an easy task. As Wexler pointed out, the students did not have money or high-priced lobbyists to help them push it through the system – but through persistence, they managed to do it.
“The students should be proud of their unwavering dedication in their fight for transparency and for unlocking the door that has been depriving communities – still feeling the pain of civil rights-era hate crimes – from the truth,” Sen. Greenstein said.