The U.S. Senate confirmed Emory University’s Creative Writing Professor of Practice Hank Klibanoff and Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library instruction archivist Gabrielle Dudley to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board on Feb. 17. 

The Board was created in 2019 after former President Donald Trump signed the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act of 2018 into law. Klibanoff and Dudley were nominated for the Board in June 2021 by President Joseph Biden, and they both testified before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in January. 

The Board is currently authorized to work until 2024. However, Sens. Jon Ossoff (D-Ga.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced the bipartisan Civil Rights Cold Case Investigations Support Act of 2022 on Feb. 17, which, if passed, would extend the Board’s term through 2027. This legislation would give the Board members more time to complete their work.

As Board members, Klibanoff and Dudley will examine government records of racist murders of Black Americans that went unpunished from 1940-1980. They will determine which cases can be digitized and added to the National Archives, and which cannot be released, such as those that refer to living confidential informants.

Klibanoff and Dudley were two of four nominees confirmed to the Board. A fifth member was nominated, but the offer was withdrawn by the White House in January and has yet to be replaced. 

Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library instruction archivist Gabrielle Dudley (left) and Creative Writing Professor of Practice Hank Klibanoff (right) were confirmed to to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board. (Emory University)

The idea behind the Board has been a long time coming, according to Klibanoff. He said that the Freedom of Information Act, which was passed in 1967 and gives the public the right to request records from federal agencies, is “burdensome” and has not been effective in releasing mass amounts of records. Klibanoff met with the late Rep. John Lewis (Ga.-5) in 2009 to try to remedy the issue.

“We came up with an agreement that we should try to get work around all the things that were clogging the system,” Klibanoff said. 

An award-winning veteran journalist, Klibanoff is the director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project where undergraduate students examine unsolved or unpunished racially-motivated murders in Georgia during the modern Civil Rights era. He is also the creator and host of a Peabody Award-winning podcast called “Buried Truths”which also explores stories of race and justice.   Klibanoff won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in history for his co-authorship of “The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation.”

Like his work on the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, he believes the Board will bring closure to the families of victims from the Civil Rights era. 

“I’m thrilled for families, that there’s going to be an opportunity to get them records, which in many cases they don’t know the government has,” Klibanoff said. “This will help scholars, historians and others who look into these cases.”

During his Senate testimony, Klibanoff said the U.S. may see “racial peacemaking” among the families of perpetrators and victims. He said that although the number of people who were murdered because of their race during the Civil Rights era is unknown, he believes that more than just lives were lost. 

“The removal of a father or mother or grandparent often meant the erasure of all memory of a family’s entire history,” Klibanoff said. “We have an opportunity to provide the records that can enable families to fill in some of those gaps, and give them the wholeness of history they’ve not had for decades.”

As an archivist at the Rose Library, Dudley, who has been working with civil rights collections for more than a decade, has described records, handled confidential materials, assisted researchers with archives and implemented primary source material in and out of the classroom. She also helps design undergraduate and graduate courses and assignments. 

She is currently the chair of the Archives of Color Roundtable for the Society of American Archivists.

Dudley wrote in a Feb. 21 email to the Wheel that  she is “deeply honored” by her nomination and looks forward to reviewing the records.

“I am humbled that the work of the Board could mean justice for so many families and move our country towards healing from the atrocities of the civil rights era,” Dudley wrote. “I know that the work of this Board is timely and will have a tremendous cultural and social impact on the ways in which the civil rights era is taught and discussed for generations to come.”

Dudley referred to herself as an “Alabamian and Black daughter of the South” during her Senate testimony, saying she has seen the impact of this type of work first-hand. She said her experiences give her a special connection and obligation to the Board’s work. 

“I grew up with the constant reminders of the struggles of the Civil Rights era and knowledge that unsolved cases existed,” Dudley said. “My upbringing and love for my country’s history, albeit sometimes painful, led me to pursue a professional career as an archivist.”

In her testimony, Dudley also said that allowing access to the records can “spark both transformation and change,” explaining that it will promote understanding of the Civil Rights era among young people, as well as potentially help solve cases. 

“The work of this Board is timely and will have a tremendous cultural and social impact on the ways in which the civil rights era is taught and discussed for generations to come,” she said.