When the students in Stuart Wexler’s Hightstown High School government and politics class learned about the ferocity and the ugliness of the hate crimes committed against black citizens and people involved in the Civil Rights movement, they were more than shocked.
They demanded answers. They wanted to know why murders went unsolved, why lynchings and beatings went unpunished.
“The one thing every state in the union agrees on is that there is no statute of limitations on murder,” Wexler said in a recent interview with School Leader. “We recognize how devastating these kinds of crimes are to families, especially families who were on the side of what America’s values were supposed to be.”
Four years ago, with encouragement from Wexler, his students submitted requests for records, only to find out that very little information would be released by the investigating agencies, even 60 years after the crimes. Wexler pointed out that the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, while well-intentioned, had little effect. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened 113 cases, and closed all of them, unsolved.
To some, that would be a dead end.
Instead, fueled by the energy and clear vision of youth, his students, over four years, learned how to write legislation that would make the records available. They traveled to Washington, D.C. and successfully lobbied to get their bill passed by Congress. It was signed on Jan. 8, 2019 by President Trump. Their legislation — The Cold Case Act — establishes an independent review board to provide for the release of previously sealed documents.
The goal is to achieve more than the FBI could, Wexler said, since former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a staunch enemy of Martin Luther King and mistrusted by many in the Civil Rights movement. By getting documents into the hands of families, documentary filmmakers and historians, Wexler and his students hope families can learn the truth and bring racially motivated murderers to justice.
Wexler has been a teacher at the school for 15 years. The project has profoundly affected his students.
“We can bring back answers to these families who have been searching for documents and papers to find what happened to their ancestors and their loved ones,” said Tahj Linton, 17.
“We hope to help a lot of families that had to go through these racial hate crimes,” said Niti Patel, 17.
There is still work to do. In addition to needing funding, the review board members must be appointed by the House, the Senate and the president.
“We feel hopeful,” said 17-year-old student Sarah Mann. “As long as there are people fighting for change, and there are people trying their best to help others by making political change, there is hope.”
Samantha Colella, 18, said, “The bill has taught us how everyday Americans can be the change they want to see in the world.”
Hightstown Board of Education President Alice Weisman said she was very proud of Wexler and his students.
“What a wonderful teacher!” she said. “One of our district goals is to make sure our students graduate with an understanding of what it means to be a citizen. I think that this class and this experience exemplify what we as a district want for our students.”