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These teens have a plan to crack old civil rights cases — and they’re pushing it through Congress

The Parkland shooting shined a light on young activists, but young people aren't just fighting for gun control.

Atlanta's missing and murdered children are shown in the photo above. CREDIT: Getty Images
Atlanta's missing and murdered children are shown in the photo above. CREDIT: Getty Images

Two years ago, when Oslene Johnson was a senior in high school, she would use her study hall period to call members of Congress, hoping to talk to them about a bill she and her classmates had authored.

The bill, borne out of Johnson’s AP Government class, would make secret or redacted government files on cold cases from the Civil Rights era public. The idea is that if the records are brought to light, private prosecutors can take up the cases in an effort to finally get justice for families and communities who have gone without for decades.

And it isn’t just a high school class project: It’s been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), garnering co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle. The bill’s authors and advocates told ThinkProgress they expect it will be introduced in the Senate soon, too.

In the weeks since the Parkland shooting, which left 17 people dead at a Florida high school, a group of teenagers has emerged as a political force driving the gun debate. Their work has brought the voices of young activists to the forefront of the conversation and inspired people around the world to take to the streets.

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There is a sense that young people are going to change the way we talk about guns in America for good and that when they can vote, they will be a force to be reckoned with in the ballot box. But young people aren’t just getting involved in politics and activism to fight for better firearm laws.

Stuart Wexler’s AP Government classes at New Jersey’s Hightstown High want to change the course of history itself. For the last three years, Wexler and his students have been working to get their Civil Rights cold cases legislation passed, a bill that is the result of research issues Wexler himself had while writing a book and while his students were studying the Civil Rights era.

Wexler told ThinkProgress that he’s confident the young people he works with are going to leave a mark.

“I always joke with them, but it’s not really a joke,” he said. “I think they’re going to save the world… as long as we’re not dropping them in a pile of steaming dung.”

The problem — and the Google Doc solution

A few years ago, Wexler wrote a book about white supremacist violence in the 1960’s, but he ran into a problem.

“Every chapter had something along the lines of this is an interesting area to explore but I’ve gone as far as I can go,” Wexler said. “The government says they don’t have these files or can’t release them… from Atlanta child murders to the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.”

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“It was very frustrating to have it happen on cases that are 50 years old,” the high school teacher added. “And if it’s that frustrating for me … [imagine] victims’ families.”

Wexler had the same problem when teaching his students.

“It seemed crazy to me that there are all these cold cases,” Lydia Francoeur, who took Wexler’s class during the 2016-2017 school year, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “After everything that everybody has gone through losing a loved one that they still have no answers.”

So in 2015, Wexler proposed the idea to his students: What if they worked together and wrote a bill to help try and solve the problem and tried to get it signed into law? The class unanimously agreed, and Wexler’s students began write the bill, using the Emmitt Till Act and JFK Records Act as templates.

“We hit the ground running,” Johnson, who’s now in college, told ThinkProgress. “It was 20 to 25 high school students on this one Google doc editing it at the same time… It was tedious but we went through and edited the bill.”

They worked on writing the bill during class and ultimately began to lobby for the bill. In the years since, Wexler’s new students have continued that work. For some time, their focus was on Republican members of the House Oversight Committee. At the time, the committee was chaired by Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), who has since retired. Wexler’s classes have taken a number of trip’s to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress and their staffers and discuss their work.

Hightstown High students in Washington D.C. to lobby for their bill. CREDIT: Stuart Wexler
Hightstown High students in Washington D.C. to lobby for their bill. CREDIT: Stuart Wexler

Students like Johnson who have graduated have continued to work with Wexler and his current students on the bill and lobbying efforts.

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“It was the end of our school year and I realized … we can’t just stop here because the school year ended,” Abigail Nickerson, who was a senior in 2015, said. Nicerson is now studying math at Vanderbilt, and she said that she has looked for opportunities to get people at school involved in the bill, talking about it in her history and government classes and reaching out to other students who might be interested.

Sam Colella, a junior at Hightstown currently taking Wexler’s AP Government class, spent the summer researching the bill so that she had a good understanding of the work on day one of the school year.

Her research, she said in an interview with ThinkProgress, “transcended into trying to find staffers make phone calls.”

“A lot of emailing happened,” Colella said. Now, she’s become a de facto PR person for the bill, reaching out to members of Congress and the media to spread the word.

The ultimate simulation

Their work seems to be having an effect. Ten House members have agreed to co-sponsor the bill, and the the students have been lobbying Sen. Doug Jones (D-AL), who made his name prosecuting the 16th Street bombers decades after the attack, to introduce their bill in the Senate.

Wexler and his students have been forced to fight to keep the ball rolling, though. The bill was originally introduced in March of 2017, but they have yet to get it out of committee, something Wexler attributed to the chaos of the Trump administration trying to pass health care and tax reform bills as well as turnover in the Oversight Committee.

“There’s a decent argument that timing has put us in a situation where all the oxygen has been used up until February of this year,” Wexler said.

But Wexler and his students have run into another timing issue, too.

“So it gets introduced in March of 2017, and then, you know, we try and make some moves, but within a couple of months… the AP test comes up. That comes into sharp focus,” Wexler said.

The bill’s authors do have other responsibilities, including their actual studies.

“Sometimes in class, I’m like, OK, Wexler, I know you’re trying to teach me about the electoral college right now, but…” Johnson remembered with a laugh.

And while they do have to learn what they need to for the big end of year test, Wexler and his students said it’s been an amazing learning tool.

Hightstown High students at school. CREDIT: Stuart Wexler
Hightstown High students at school. CREDIT: Stuart Wexler

“I spent 2 years on this… and my AP scores are usually good but they’ve been even better,” Wexler said. “I’m trying to teach them about activism and being the part of the political process… how the political system works.”

“From the point of view of a teacher, I try and do things by simulation anyway, and this is the ultimate simulation because it’s not a simulation,” he added.

“We can’t let people forget about it.”

The students said their work on the bill opened their eyes to an important issue and activated them politically, too.

“For me, it’s about providing closure,” Francoeur, who’s now studying accounting, said, adding that her work on the bill has inspired her to look for ways to continue being involved with government as she gets older.

Nickerson echoed that sentiment.

“I was in high school and being in a lot of history classes and learning about the injustices… and feeling powerless to do anything about that and feeling regretful that that happened and unsure what my place in that is,” she said. 

She went on, saying “Obviously we can’t fix all the horrible things that happened in that time and previously with race relations in our country but maybe [we are] able to offer a little bit of justice or say ‘We still care about this.'”

Colella said the fact that the bill works to reopen history spoke to her, too.

“[Racism] still has a strong hold on America today,” she said. “I feel like this bill kind of allows us to open up these cases and open up history again. These were the victims… These were real people that were being treated this way. We can’t let people forget about it.”

For Johnson, the bill isn’t just about the past.

“We can’t as a country possibly move forward if we don’t look back and at least try to alleviate some of that trauma and bitterness,” she said. “How can we truly contend with the importance and the necessity of Black Lives Matter if we don’t look back on the Civil Rights era?”

Johnson, who’s 18 now, also shared a plea to older people who, as she put it, “have lost the spirit of their youth, the feelings that they could change the world.”

“Help us with the logistics, help us with writing the policy,” she said, adding that she also sees that young activists often need help with transportation or finances. “Not just to the pundits, but to our parents, aunts, uncles, people in the neighborhood: help us.”

Wexler, one adult who really has tried to do everything he can to help his young students, said that one thing he thinks some adults don’t see is that “their hearts are really all in the right place.”

“If you taught them for the last 14 years you wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “If you get them active the sky’s the limit. I have a tremendous amount of faith.”