The students’ interest began in 2015, when teacher Stuart Wexler’s Advanced Placement government and policy class at Hightstown High was studying the civil rights movement. They couldn’t believe that in America, so many criminal cases involving racial violence and death could remain unsolved.
Srihari Suvramanian, 17, a senior, said in an Associated Press telephone interview with the class: “It’s just atrocious that these individuals have gotten away with crimes committed decades ago, for so long, even though the majority of Americans know it’s wrong.”
He added: “We think it’s very important to provide a sense of closure. Even if we can’t get a full sense of closure, maybe provide some answers to the people that were denied justice.”
The students crowdsourced a list of cases, filed Freedom of Information Act requests and then waited. Research on old cases often runs into dead ends, and they could imagine the difficulties that families go through trying to get answers.
They turned their attention to Congress.
The President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, which collects records at the National Archives from the assassination, provided a model for the legislation they wanted. They took bus trips to Washington to find supporters. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., was among the first to sign on, inspired, his office said, by the work and the possibility it held.
Then Democrat Doug Jones won a Senate seat from Alabama in December 2017. They had already reached out to Jones, the U.S. attorney who won convictions after reopening the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case from 1963 in Birmingham.
Six months after he was sworn in as the first Democratic senator from Alabama in a generation, Jones stood on the Senate floor and introduced the bill that would become the Civil Rights Cold Case Collection Act. The students watched from the gallery above.