Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Doug Jones, D-Ala., have proposed a bill that would release information pertaining to unsolved Civil Rights-era crimes, including bombings and lynchings, with the hope that “additional sunlight” will help law enforcement officials close at least a few of the decades-old cold cases.
“The civil rights movement gave millions of people a new share in the American Dream. Tragically, many violent crimes committed against black families struggling for equality during this time remain unsolved,” the senators said in a joint op-ed published Wednesday by the Dallas News. It added:
“This month, the U.S. Senate moved one step closer to passing bipartisan legislation that would help these families find justice when the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs passed our Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act. This crucial bill would release information on cold cases from the civil rights era, with the hope that additional sunlight and public interest would bring revelation, justice and closure where these things have long been lacking.”
The op-ed rightly notes that many of the violent crimes committed in response to the push for civil rights were prosecuted and justice was served. However, as the bill’s very existence notes, many of the crimes also went unsolved.
“[I]n many cases,” Sens. Jones and Cruz write, “witnesses were intimidated into silence and evidence was intentionally brushed under the rug by corrupt officials. Victims and their families were often afraid to pursue justice against their attackers. And despite the best efforts of law enforcement in many cases, they did not have access to modern forensic methods, and trails went cold.”
They add: “Records and evidence from many of these cases sit locked away in files and vaults, outside of the public eye. As memories fade and witnesses, victims and perpetrators of decades-old crimes pass away, our window to solve these cold cases shrinks.”
The proposed legislation would require that the cold case files be made available at the National Archives and Records Administration. The idea here is that NARA would then create a “collection of documents that would be publicly disclosed, although for certain reasons disclosure of some information may be postponed.” The bill is also careful to take steps to provide identity protections where requested and/or necessary.
As Jones and Cruz explain it, the bill aims mostly to make the information available to “private detectives, historians, victims and victims' families,” with the ultimate goal being that some of these cases be solved finally.
“Many journalists and organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting have called for a decentralized, crowd-sourced approach to breaking cold cases by making their information public, which is exactly the intent of our legislation,” the senators add.
They conclude: “We are hopeful this legislation will add another victorious footnote to the legacy of the civil rights movement and allow the American people to seek justice for their countrymen who were wrongly persecuted for the color of their skin and their fight for equality.”
The best thing about the bill is that it aims to deliver long-awaited justice to the victims and the perpetrators. The second-best thing is that the bill is a major, positive step in the direction of governmental transparency. The third-best thing about the proposed legislation is that it is a rare sliver of bipartisan light in an otherwise ugly and divisive Congress.
That the bill will likely be politically useful to both Cruz, who is fighting hard to keep his seat in this year’s midterm elections, and Jones, who will likely face a tough re-election effort in 2020, is icing on the cake for them.
Let them have it. They’ve earned it.