They weren’t born when the civil rights movement ended. Even many of their parents weren’t alive then.
And yet a high school class in Hightstown, New Jersey, has found an impressive way to shed light on unsolved civil rights crimes from the 1950s and ‘60s.
The AP class, studying US government, drafted a bill that would create a board to review, declassify, and release documents related to such cases.
Then they went one step further.
The students from Hightstown High School went to Washington, walked the halls of Senate office buildings and passed out folders with policy research and information about their bill, said former student Joshua Fayer.
Their efforts caught the attention of Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, who introduced the bill – modeled after the JFK Assassination Records Act – in March 2017.
Later Sens. Doug Jones of Alabama and Ted Cruz of Texas signed on. The House and Senate versions of the bipartisan bill – the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act – passed late last year, and President Trump signed the bill into law on January 8 – hours before it would expire in a pocket veto.
“We were worried it would slip through the cracks. There was a lot going on – it was mid-government shutdown,” Fayer said.
It began as an effort to make government more transparent
Hightstown government teacher Stuart Wexler told CNN the project began in 2015, when he used the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing as a way to teach the class about civil rights crimes.
Former student Jay Vainganker said the class was initially trying to solve unresolved hate crimes from the era. They filed public records requests for information from the FBI and Department of Justice, and they got back redacted responses from the government. In some cases, entire pages were redacted.
That’s when their focus changed, Vaingankar said. They decided to draft a bill that would make the government “a little bit more transparent.”
“These documents were mainly redacted for national security concerns. For example, if someone is named a witness in a murder case, the FBI has interest in not letting that name get out because the witnesses can be targeted,” Vaingankar said. “Where that logic falls apart is a lot of the witnesses have passed away, because these hate crimes happened a long time ago.”
The Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act creates “a board that would be authorized to look at these documents and see what should be redacted, what isn’t relevant, what should be released,” he said. The board would have the authority to release the documents.
That way, Vainganker said, “these documents can be released with the end goal that prosecutors, journalists, historians can look at this information and solve these crimes.”
Fayer said one of the cases that stood out to him was the “Mississippi Burning” murders, in which three civil rights activists were gunned down in 1964.
“It was due to the efforts of three high school students and their teachers that some of the perpetrators were convicted,” he said. “The high school students and other investigators dug up evidence that ended up incriminating the individuals who were convicted only because that evidence existed in the public eye.”
He added that “private investigators, family members, even high schoolers have had a great deal of success in closing some of these cases, so we felt that it was necessary to give more people the chance to do so.”
Some students even worked on it after leaving high school
Vaingankar is now a junior at University of Pennsylvania. He worked on the bill even after he graduated high school, taking multiple trips to Washington.
“It was incredible to go to DC and sit in boardrooms with the chiefs of staff and legislative aides and quite literally have a seat at the table in creating legislation and learning about the ins and outs of how it becomes a law,” he said.
Like Vainganker, Abigail Nickerson was in the first class of Hightstown students to get the ball rolling on the bill.
“From the beginning, this was more than a class project or an assignment,” said Nickerson, now a junior at Vanderbilt University. “We wanted to see how far we could go with it.”
“It was something we all saw as an extremely meaningful thing to do compared to all of the other things, the tests we were worrying about. This is something we could really see as having an influence on our country,” she said.
Wexler said a group of 50-60 students remained “hard-core committed” to the project, even after they graduated and went on to college. Each new incoming class built upon the previous year’s work.
“It was organic and worked out neatly. Each class had different stages of progress. The first group got Representative Bobby Rush’s attention and got it on the agenda of the House of Representatives. Next year’s class got it refined to be actually introduced and worked to lobby the committee that it was to be sent to,” he added.
“Third year really tried to reach out and get it into the Senate. The fourth year was taking it to the finish line and trying to get it signed into law.”
But their work isn’t done
The work won’t stop here, Wexler said. Yes, the students’ bill is now law. But for it to have any teeth, it needs to be funded.
The current class plans to go to Washington to lobby for their bill.
“This is the beginning of the process,” said Hightstown High School Principal Dennis Vinson. “There’s more work to do – they don’t want to lose focus on moving forward.”
Sen. Jones said in a statement that he’s “excited” that the students’ idea has now been signed into law.
“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,” Jones said. “I know how deeply painful these civil rights-era crimes remain for communities, so by shedding light on these investigations I hope we can provide an opportunity for healing and closure.”
“This project taught me that … even though our system is broken at the moment, citizens from any background can make a difference,” said Nickerson.
“One of the things we try to do is make learning meaningful and real-life applicable,” said Vinson, the principal. “This is a perfect example of a lasting legacy at our school and for our nation.”