Student behind civil rights cold case law says it will bring 'closure' to families

A student behind a law on civil rights cold cases told Hill.TV that it will help bring closure to families who lost loved ones to racially motivated crimes during the Civil Rights era.

Oslene Johnson, a former student from Hightstown High School in New Jersey, joined “Rising” to discuss how she and fellow classmates last year helped propose a bill that would require government agencies to submit files and records about civil rights cold cases to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 

“In terms of interest in wanting to look back at these cases, there are still families today that decades later are still trying to get access to information about what happened to their relatives,” Johnson told Hill.TV’s Buck Sexton during an interview that aired on Friday.

“There are still family members as many decades ago as it was that are still looking for a semblance of closure and justice even if a prosecution may not be possible in most of the cases,” she added.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE officially signed the student-led bill, officially known as the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, into law in January.

Johnson said her class first came up with the idea for the bill during an AP history class when they started researching civil rights-era cold cases.

“We referred to a lot of these cases as unsung heroes because they weren’t necessarily the Martin Luther King Jr.’s of that time, so we weren’t learning about them throughout our entire public education,” she told Hill.TV.

Johnson said that she and fellow classmates became frustrated with the difficulties in requesting civil rights-cold case records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 

“We thought ‘what can we do,’ what exists right now and then we stumbled across the FOIA process and realized that as well intentioned as it is, there [are] still roadblocks,” she told Hill.TV.

Johnson’s teacher, Stuart Wexler, said even though these cases dated back to 50 or 60 years ago, many of these documents remained either classified or heavily redacted. 

Wexler, however, noted that under the law, this will no longer be the case.

The law created a board of advisors to aid the review process and avoid delays that could prevent the national archivist from publicly disclosing government records related to unsolved civil rights cases. 

“The answer they give is that they’re protecting sources and methods, that there may be for instance informants whose lives they’re wanting to protect,” Wexler said. “The board that we’re creating with this law would actually be able to reach out and figure that out.”

Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) and Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzIs this any way for NASA to build a lunar lander? GOP strategist predicts Biden will win nomination, cites fundraising strength 3 real problems Republicans need to address to win in 2020 MORE (R-Texas) co-sponsored the legislation which was signed into law by Trump.

“This law sends a powerful message to those impacted by these horrific crimes and to young folks in this country who want to make a difference,” the Alabama Democrat said in a statement praising its passage.

—Tess Bonn