BLACK VOICES

White House Pushes To Jump-Start Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases Board

The White House has named nominees for the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, which will reexamine unsolved murder cases of the civil rights era.
This Feb. 12, 2005, file photos shows Rosa Ingram, Roger Malcom's aunt, reading the Georgia Historical Society marker for the
This Feb. 12, 2005, file photos shows Rosa Ingram, Roger Malcom's aunt, reading the Georgia Historical Society marker for the Moore's Ford bridge lynching, outside Monroe, Georgia. The brazen mass lynching horrified the nation that year but no one was ever indicted and investigations over the years failed to solve the case.

The White House has announced its nominees for an oversight board that will take another look at unsolved murder cases of Black Americans during the civil rights era, long-awaited news more than two years after the commission was established.

The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, which was signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2019 after receiving overwhelmingly bipartisan support in Congress, will review unsolved civil rights cases from the 1950s and 1960s. The board, proposed by several lawmakers, including Sens. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and now-Vice President Kamala Harris, will have the ability to declassify and release government documents in an attempt to uncover why these cases remain unsolved.

But the board remained dormant under Trump, without any members, and has yet to do any work. Last June, Jones wrote a letter to Trump asking him to select members for the board, to no avail. The Biden administration hopes its efforts to appoint nominees will be successful.

“The White House hopes the Senate will quickly move these nominees,” a White House official told HuffPost.

The nominees are: 

  • Dr. Clayborne Carson, a scholar on the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movements that were inspired by the late civil rights activist. Carson was selected by Coretta Scott King to direct the Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project, a collection of King’s speeches, publications and more. Dr. Carson has taught at Stanford University since 1975.
  • Gabrielle Dudley, an instruction archivist at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University. Dudley earned her M.A. in Public History and Master of Library and Information Science degree with a concentration in Archival Studies and Preservation Management from the University of South Carolina.
  • Henry Klibanoff, a veteran journalist who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for his book “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.” Klibanoff is the director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project at Atlanta’s Emory University.
  • Margaret Burnham, civil rights lawyer and former state court judge. Burnham, the first African American woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, is currently a professor at Northeastern University School of Law. She is also the founder of the university’s Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project, which seeks to document unsolved race-based killings in the Deep South between 1930 and 1970.

The idea for the board originated from a group of students at Hightstown High School in New Jersey, who drafted the Cold Case Act in 2015 — thus becoming the first known high school class to have a bill signed into law. An op-ed written by one of the students caught the eye of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who would later introduce the bill. Aditya Shah, a high school junior at the time, wrote about Wharlest Jackson, a treasurer for his local NAACP chapter in the 1960s, who was killed by a car bomb and whose murder, along with at least 100 others, remains unsolved today.

The National Archives and Records Administration must also establish a collection of cold case records for any unsolved criminal civil rights cases that government offices must publicly disclose — with no redactions, according to the law.

The Department of Justice defines civil rights-era cold cases as civil rights offenses that took place before 1980, where a victim was killed because of their race or because they were fighting for civil rights. These cases are unique because witnesses and defendants are generally older or deceased and the statute of limitations has usually long passed. But the hope is that justice can still be allowed for families that have been seeking closure for decades. 

“This, you don’t have to have a living perpetrator,” Hank Klibanoff told Courthouse News. “This allows the perpetrators — even if they are deceased — to still face the judgment of history. This allows historians, or families and newspaper reporters, to come in, look at them and write stories about what the record shows happened.”