[Congressional Record Volume 164, Number 115 (Tuesday, July 10, 2018)]
[Pages S4876-S4878]


      By Mr. JONES (for himself, Mrs. McCaskill, and Ms. Harris):
  S. 3191. A bill to provide for the expeditious disclosure of records 
related to civil rights cold cases, and for other purposes; to the 
Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
  Mr. JONES. Mr. President, I rise to speak on a matter of both 
personal and national importance.
  As many folks know by now, a defining moment in my career as a 
prosecutor was bringing to justice two former Ku Klux Klansmen for the 
bombing of Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963. That act of 
domestic terrorism, and that is exactly what it was, killed four 
innocent, beautiful little girls. As one of their mothers, Miss Alpha 
Robertson, described, ``It sounded like the whole world was shaking.''
  There is no doubt it did. The whole world shook as people asked: How 
could this happen in America, the land of the free and the home of the 
brave? Despite the feeling that the whole world shook--and indeed the 
horrific crime did add momentum to the civil rights movement--the 
criminals responsible for the murder of those four little girls were 
not brought to justice for decades.
  The first came in 1977, 14 years after the fact, by my friend and 
former Alabama attorney general, Bill Baxley. It would be 24 and 25 
years later, in 2001 and 2002, that my team of Robert Posey, Jeff 
Wallace, Don Cochran, Bill Fleming, Ben Herren, and I completed that 
journey. The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church was but one of 
many civil rights-era crimes that have gone unsolved.
  Solving and successfully prosecuting an almost 40-year-old case was 
no easy task, and the effort involved a team of both Federal and State 
law enforcement. Media coverage also contributed to some key breaks in 
that case. In fact, it was through the dedicated efforts of my friend 
Jerry Mitchell, an award-winning journalist at the Jackson, MS, Clarion 
Ledger, that these unsolved civil rights cases even got a second look. 
It was when the State of Mississippi opened closed files of a Jim Crow-
era State commission that Jerry discovered it might be possible to 
reopen several unsolved cases, including the cases of Medgar Evers and 
Vernon Dahmer. When those cases resulted in convictions, law 
enforcement officers and communities around the South began to 
reexamine so many of the unsolved crimes, including the bombing of the 
16th Street Baptist Church.
  Today there are more than 100 unsolved civil rights criminal cases 
out there. Many of them are 50 years old or older. Some were 
investigated a little, some were investigated a lot, but because these 
were State not Federal crimes most were never really investigated at 
  While it is certainly never too late for justice, years of delays can 
create serious and sometimes insurmountable obstacles: Memories fade or 
are lost to death, evidence disappears. Potential defendants also die, 
taking the details of their crimes to their graves.
  Justice can take many forms. It doesn't always have to be a criminal 
conviction. One measure of justice--not a full measure but a measure 
nonetheless--can be achieved through a public examination of the facts 
and determination of the truth about what happened and why, but because 
these were criminal cases, the records and files relating to these 
unsolved cases are often classified or shielded from public view, and 
sometimes they are literally scattered among various agencies and hard 
to find.
  Yet the victims of these crimes and their families have no less right 
to justice than they did at the time the crimes were committed, and the 
American people have a right to know this part of our Nation's history. 
As has often been said, if we do not learn from the mistakes of the 
past, we are doomed to repeat them. In today's climate, I believe we 
need to be more than ever vigilant and knowledgeable about the mistakes 
of the crimes of the civil rights era.
  Eleven years ago, nearly to the day, I testified as a lawyer before 
the House Judiciary Committee in support of the Emmett Till Unsolved 
Civil Rights Crimes Act. That act created the Department of Justice's 
Civil Rights Cold Case Division to focus exclusively on solving these 
unsolved civil rights cases. Since the bill's passage, the Civil Rights 
Division has reexamined a number of these cases. I certainly applaud 
their efforts in doing so, but often, as was my experience, these cases 
end up being solved with the help of journalists, historians, private 
investigators, and local law enforcement, but that requires having 
access to the files. It is not an easy task getting access to these 
kinds of files. However, by ensuring public access to the files and 
records relating to these cases, we can expand the universe of people 
who can help these victims receive the justice they have long since 
been denied. If we are going to find the truth, it has to start with 
  That is why today I am introducing the Civil Rights Cold Case Records 
Collection Act of 2018, which will require the assembly, collection, 
and public disclosure of government cold case records about unsolved 
civil rights cases.
  This legislation would not have been possible without the dedicated 
efforts of students at Hightstown High School in Hightstown, NJ, and 
their teacher Stuart Wexler, who have joined me in the Gallery today.
  It was a couple of years ago, long before becoming a U.S. Senator was 
really on my radar, that I received a call from Mr. Wexler explaining 
that he and his students had been stymied in efforts to obtain 
documents through the Freedom of Information Act about some of these 
cases. They wanted my support and others for legislation they were 
drafting to open these files to the public. Since I had already made 
that suggestion to folks at the Justice Department and others, I 
enthusiastically endorsed their project. Who would have imagined that 2 
or 3 years ago we would be here today?
  I thank them for reminding me of our conversations and our shared 
commitment and for working with me and my staff to make the 
introduction of this legislation possible today. It means a lot that 
these young people from New Jersey, who were not even born when these 
crimes were committed, care so much about this issue.
  I also thank a few other folks. I thank John Hamilton and Jay Bosanko 
at the National Archives for working with the staff, and Professor Hank 
Klibanoff, who is also with us in the Gallery today, a former 
journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner for the book ``The Race Beat'' 
that examined the role of the journalist during the civil rights 
  I thank them for their help in drafting this legislation and others 
who dedicated their lives to working on these cold cases--people like 
Andrew Sheldon in Atlanta and Alvin Sykes, who worked so hard on the 
Emmett Till bill and the Emmett Till case; Margaret Burnham, a law 
professor from Northeast Eastern University Law School; and Paula 
Johnson from Syracuse University Law School have all done remarkable 
work in trying to reexamine these cases.
  While prosecuting the church bombing cases, I learned how deeply 
important this work is to anyone who lost a loved one just because 
someone else hated the color of their skin. It is also important to the 
communities where these crimes occurred.
  It is impossible to express the emotion and satisfaction our team 
felt at the conclusion of those trials and the guilty verdicts we 
obtained. It was a privilege to work on cases that meant so much to so 
many. We have come a long way since 1963, but justice delayed does not 
have to mean justice denied.
  When I testified at the House Judiciary Committee 11 years ago, I 
noted that we could never prosecute all of these cases but that as a 
country of compassion, we should find other ways to heal these old 
wounds. Reconciliation can be the most potent medicine for healing. 
After all this time, we might not solve every one of these cold cases, 
but my hope is, our efforts today will, at the very least, help us find 
some long overdue healing and understanding of the truth.
  Each civil rights crime, each victim of that era deserves as much 
attention and effort as Carol Robertson, Denise McNair, Addie Mae 
Collins, and Cynthia Morris Wesley, the young girls who lost their 
lives that Sunday morning in 1963.

[[Page S4878]]

  Thank you.