High School AP Government Class Helps Families of Civil Rights Murder Victims After Lobbying Congress

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tags: Congress, civil rights, education, high school

Ethan Ehrenhaft is a Washington, DC, native and senior history major at Davidson College in North Carolina. He is co–editor in chief of The Davidsonian, the college’s student-run newspaper.

Della McDuffie’s official death certificate states that she died in 1953 from a cerebral hemorrhage, caused by a condition preceding her death. The night of her death, the sheriff of Wilcox County, Alabama, raided the café she owned with her husband. An elderly and disabled African American woman, she was unable to flee during the turmoil. The FBI declined to pursue an investigation—even after her husband died the next year under mysterious circumstances. According to NAACP legal records, however, Della McDuffie was beaten to death.

Since 2006, the FBI has identified over 100 unsolved murder cases from the civil rights era, most involving African Americans allegedly slain at the hands of hate groups. Under the Emmett Till Act of 2007, the FBI and Department of Justice (DOJ) began reopening these cases. As of June 2019, the DOJ has fully investigated 116 cases, closing 104 of them without prosecution or referral to states. Only two have been federally prosecuted.

While discussing the Civil Rights Movement in the fall of 2015, Stuart Wexler’s AP Government students at Hightstown (New Jersey) High School became frustrated over the lack of publicly available information regarding cold cases. After experiencing the inefficient process of requesting documents through the Freedom of Information Act, the students began drafting a bill closely modeled on the JFK Records Act but designed to address civil rights cold cases. 

On January 8, 2019, nearly four years of relentless phone calls, draft edits, and lobbying trips to Washington, DC, paid off when President Trump signed the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act into law. With Trump’s signature, congressional historians believe, the Hightstown students are likely the first high schoolers to write a law passed by Congress and signed by a president.

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives

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