BATON ROUGE, La. (LSU Manship School News Service) — Aditya Shah was a junior at Hightstown High School in New Jersey in 2015 when he and his AP Government and Politics classmates began studying cold cases involving Ku Klux Klan murders in the South.

Out of curiosity, the students filed a public records request with the help of their teacher, Stuart Wexler, to learn more about some of these cases.

After about a year of waiting, Shah and his classmates had received only a few documents – and those were heavily redacted of vital information despite the cases being so old.

“We realized that this process is inefficient, and it takes too long and that something has to be done to change it,” Shah said in an interview.

From there, the students embarked on drafting a bill and a longshot effort to persuade lawmakers to turn it into law. Congress followed through in 2018, creating the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, and now the law is finally about to be implemented.

A U.S. Senate committee approved four nominees last week to serve on a national board tasked with reviewing and eventually releasing to the public hundreds of thousands of pages of FBI documents on murder cases from the civil-rights era.

Once the full Senate approves them, the nominees, all university professors, will be able to get to work reviewing FBI files. Congress has appropriated $4 million for the effort, and it raises the possibility of fulfilling the hopes of historians, journalists, and victims’ family members still searching for answers to unsolved homicides.

In Louisiana alone, 15 victims from that era have been included among cases that the FBI has reviewed, and the board members could help prompt the release of more of those records.

“This is a very difficult period in our nation’s history that they will be unveiling and disclosing, and it is very important that it be done,” Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, said at a hearing on Jan. 13.

“These are stories of real people and real families who are still looking for answers and one hopes that by providing this information those answers will be found and there will be some sense of relief,” he said.


When the New Jersey high students tackled the project, none of them had any experience, of course, in writing legislation.

So they modeled their bill after the John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which created a process to release redacted documents.

To declassify the records, they proposed creating an independent oversight body, the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board, to review redacted or classified FBI documents on racially motivated murders and release some of them before a long waiting period–which was set to last until 2045–ended.

Former Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, was a Senate sponsor of the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act.

Wexler and his students spoke to Sen. Doug Jones, an Alabama Democrat before he was elected in 2018, and Jones pledged his support.

After his election, Jones introduced the legislation in 2018, co-sponsoring the bill with Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

With Cruz’s support, the bill moved quickly through Congress in bipartisan fashion, garnering near-unanimous approval in just one congressional term, a feat rarely accomplished these days.

Rep. Bobby Rush, a Democrat from Illinois, introduced the bill in the House, saying later that credit for its passage belonged to the high school students.

“Their inspiration was infectious, and their idea made all the sense in the world,” he said.


President Trump signed the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act into law in January 2019. But he never nominated anyone to serve on the review board, and the project languished until last year, when President Joe Biden made the current nominations.

The four nominees approved by the Senate committee last week are Hank Klibanoff, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist now teaching at Emory University; Margaret A. Burnham of Northeastern University; Gabrielle M. Dudley of Emory University; and Brenda E. Stevenson of UCLA.

Hank Klibanoff, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and director of the Georgia Cold Case Project at Emory University, is one of the four nominees for the records board.

Senators on the committee approved the nominations on a voice vote. Two Republican senators, Rick Scott of Florida and Josh Hawley of Missouri, asked to record no votes on one of the nominees, Margaret Burnham, without explaining why.

While the FBI has closed its investigations of many of the cases it reviewed, accessing records with information not known previously would detail a more accurate story of what happened.

Student journalists from the LSU Cold Case Project have typically had to wait for years before requests for FBI documents on these types of cases were processed by the National Archives and Records Administration.

The quicker the release of the documents and in an unredacted form would enable students to unravel even more cases. In a recent series, LSU cold case reporters found new witnesses and courthouse documents that disproved a Monroe Klansman’s claim in 1960 that he had shot five Black men, killing four, in an act of self-defense.

“It is critical that the Senate confirm the nominees to the board in short order, so that long-overdue progress on these cases can finally begin,” Sen. Tom Carper, a Democrat from Delaware who sits on the committee, told the LSU Cold Case Project.

Still, the records review is not likely to lead to new prosecutions. The main goal is to just make more information public, and most of the suspects in these cases are deceased.

The FBI has separately reviewed many cases like this for possible prosecutions under the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act of 2008. That law requires the FBI to consider potential living suspects for prosecution in civil rights-related murder cases from the 1950s and the 1960s.

The reauthorization of the Till Act in 2016 expanded the scope of the FBI’s effort to include reopening cases from the 1970s.

To date, the U.S. Department of Justice has opened 132 matters involving 151 victims. It closed 119 matters, including two federal prosecutions and 10 referrals to state authorities, according to the Attorney General’s 2021 report to Congress.

Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, was the House sponsor of the records act.

Investigations by journalists have led the way in several convictions of Klansmen for murders in Mississippi and Alabama, and to a grand jury investigation in a Louisiana murder in Ferriday in 1964.

Confirming the board members under the new records law should help free up more records from these investigations.

“I think this bill is a step in the right direction, trying to actually get these documents out to the public so that like private investigators, journalists can actually go ahead and solve these or resolve these cases,” said Shah, the student from New Jersey who has since graduated from Princeton University.

“The FBI did have an opportunity to do so for a while, and unfortunately, we haven’t been able to see the results,” he said.


Since the law was signed, the National Archives has been collecting copies of civil rights cold case records from January 1940 to December 1979.

The law authorizes up to five nominees to serve on the board. A fifth nominee has yet to be named.

But under the law, the review board expires four years after the law’s enactment, which means that the nominees have only until January 8, 2023, to operate. The law does provide, however, for a one-year extension by a majority vote of the board, and Congress could also extend its life.

Still, Klibanoff, one of the nominees, said at the January hearing: “The clock is ticking, and we know the time is limited under the law.”