Professor of Practice Hank Klibanoff has spent years investigating and writing about cold cases from the civil rights era. It’s no easy task — the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner has had to convince unwilling sources to speak with him and persuade government officials to release records.
With the passage of new federal legislation he helped craft, Klibanoff’s work and the work of anyone investigating civil rights cold cases will likely be easier.
Last month, President Donald J. Trump signed the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act into law. The act, introduced by Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), establishes a review board that will gather records pertaining to unsolved civil rights era crimes and have the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) make the information available to the public.
Klibanoff is the director of the Georgia Civil Rights Cold Cases Project, which examines the Jim Crow South through the lens of journalism and history. The College class associated with the project tasks undergraduates with investigating cold cases by searching for and analyzing primary sources, in order to better understand the era. His work has also spurred a podcast, “Buried Truths,” hosted by Klibanoff and produced by Atlanta-based NPR station WABE. Season 2, which focuses on the case of A.C. Hall, was released earlier this week.
Klibanoff’s involvement with the Cold Case Records Collection Act started in 2009, at a meeting with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.). Klibanoff called the meeting to discuss how to improve access to documents he and his colleagues used to investigate cases. Lewis signaled support for the initiative. One of the attendees at the meeting was Thomas Blanton from the non-governmental National Security Archive, who suggested Klibanoff replicate the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.
To rectify the lack of access to Kennedy’s assassination papers, Congress created an independent review board which ordered every federal agency to turn over any documents relevant to Kennedy’s assassination. The board then reviewed documents before release. This bill inspired the structure of the recently passed Cold Case Records Collection Act.
After the 2009 meeting, inspired by Blanton’s suggestion, Klibanoff set to work on legislation for Lewis to introduce. To draft the bill, Klibanoff worked with Northeastern University School of Law Professor Margaret Burnham and her law students. However, the initial version of the bill failed to become law, as a similar bill from then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) was also in contention at the time.
“I get a call from Congressman Lewis’s office that says, ‘Are you aware that Sen. Kerry is introducing a bill on this in the Senate?’ ” Klibanoff said. “I said I was not.”
Kerry’s bill focused only on the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Klibanoff contacted Kerry’s office to ask if they were aware of other similar cases that lack access to necessary documents, and suggested a larger omnibus bill.
“[Kerry’s office responded responded], ‘We’re not going to slow down this train in order to add all those [other cases] … I’m sure Sen. Kerry would be amenable to an amendment … but we’re going to introduce this on Monday. And The Boston Globe already has an editorial ready to go,’ ” Klibanoff said.
Kerry’s bill ultimately failed to receive a vote after opposition from the King family, and with it went the momentum for Klibanoff’s cold case records legislation — until Jones was elected in Fall 2017.
Jones, who prosecuted civil rights cases, reached out to Klibanoff to help draft the cold case records bill, and was pushed to introduce the bill by Hightstown High School (N.J.) teacher Stuart Wexler and his students, who also had a significant hand in writing the bill.
Klibanoff said the release of the documents could have a profound effect on the families of victims.
“[Having records available] can make an amazing difference,” Klibanoff said. “Most [families] have no idea. They know [for example that] their grandfather was killed under awful circumstances and they might even know … what he did that violated white norms.”
In his work with Emory students and the cold cases project, Klibanoff repeatedly encountered roadblocks accessing documents that should have been easily accessible under the Federal Freedom of Information Act. Researchers on “Buried Truths” ran into multiple roadblocks while obtaining records on the Season 1 subject, Isaiah Nixon, a black man murdered in 1948.
“Certainly in the case of Nixon … the family knew he was killed for voting,” Klibanoff said. “They were there, they watched it. But even [his daughter didn’t] know that there’s at least 235 pages of records in Washington.”
When a colleague tried to access records related to the Nixon case, the FBI told him they had none. The colleague appealed, and got rejected again. Then Klibanoff appealed twice. The FBI rejected him both times, but he kept searching and eventually found the records at NARA. Klibanoff said that the average citizen would have had greater difficulty accessing the records due to the complicated and lengthy appeal process.
Klibanoff blamed two main reasons — one historical, the other contemporary — for the slow pace at which citizens are able to access civil rights cold case documents.
“Indifference first [is to blame], but that indifference might have been of a different nature back in the 1940s and ‘50s and ‘60s,” he said. “We’ve inherited the … racial indifference or indolence of those years. When J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the FBI, none of this meant anything to him. He wasn’t going to get out on any limbs for civil rights, for exposing the FBI’s failure to investigate civil rights cold cases at the time… That indifference continues in the records today.”
Today, solving cold cases can amount to a question of the priorities of investigators, Klibanoff said. Often, when FBI agents were tasked in recent years with solving decades old cases, other seemingly more pressing matters took precedence.
Investigative reporter for The Clarion-Ledger and adviser for the Cold Cases Records Act Jerry Mitchell believes that Klibanoff’s work is important, particularly for the families of victims.
“I think that [Klibanoff] has been doing an excellent job with these [cold] cases that he’s been working on with [Emory] students,” Mitchell said. “The truth is that most of these cases are not going to be prosecuted again, but yet the families have not been able to … find out the whole story. We’re kind of giving a voice to the voiceless.”
Mitchell also expressed frustration at the level of redaction and misfiling of cold case records he has had to use in his past investigations.
“Sometimes parts that were redacted [in FBI files] aren’t redacted [in NARA files],” Mitchell said. “That’s the other problem with it, that there seems to be no rhyme or reason sometimes [as] to why something is redacted and why it’s not.”
Klibanoff said he hopes that the opening of civil rights cold case records helps the general public see how the U.S. has changed, and how the shift occurred.
“True stories are powerful stories,” Klibanoff said. “And it really tells us about who we were. It’s our history and we can’t pretend it’s not … If [people] like who we are [now] better than who we were [then], we’ll get to study how we made the transition. Maybe that represents a path.”
Editor’s Note: Klibanoff is the Wheel’s faculty adviser. He was not involved in the composition of or editing of this article.