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Legislation Would Open Trove Of Federal Records On Civil Rights-Era Cold Cases


A bill awaiting President Trump's signature would open a trove of federal records relating to civil rights-era cold cases. This could include declassifying FBI reports, prosecution notes and other documents about unsolved racially motivated crimes. In a rare moment of bipartisanship, the new legislation was co-sponsored in the Senate by Texas Republican Ted Cruz and Alabama Democrat Doug Jones. Senator Jones joins us now from his office in Birmingham. Welcome to the program.

DOUG JONES: Thanks, Debbie. It's good to be with you.

ELLIOTT: So I understand the idea for this actually came from a group of high school students.

JONES: It did. Two years before my election, I'd gotten a call from some high school students in New Jersey. They had been very frustrated trying to get some records. They wanted to look into a couple of the cold civil rights cases and asked me if I would endorse a bill that they were writing to create kind of a commission - like the Kennedy assassination commission - so that these records could be made public to historians, to the community. And, at that point, never having thought that the Senate was a part of me at that point, I said I'd be happy to do it and will love to help. And then, they called and reminded me. Once I got sworn in, they said, hey, you remember that bill we talked about? And we got to work.

ELLIOTT: You are a former U.S. attorney. You won murder convictions against two of the Ku Klux Klansmen who killed four girls at a Birmingham church. And that prosecution came decades later. What good do you see coming from having federal records on cases like this now available to the public?

JONES: Well, it's a combination of things. First of all, the victims and the families - they need to know as much as they can about how their loved one died, what the reasons were, who did what. That's also important I think for family members of perpetrators who have come a long way since those days. They want that reconciliation as well. And that's the other thing that I think - in this day and age, it's important I think for us to remember where we are so that we don't make the same mistakes again.

ELLIOTT: How did you come to team with Senator Cruz? You know, bipartisan cooperation isn't something we hear about very often these days from Capitol Hill.

JONES: Well, you're right. But - and that's unfortunate because there's a lot more bipartisanship in the Senate than people see with dueling press conferences. But I really wanted to file this bill because the kids from New Jersey were coming down, and I wanted them to be in the gallery when I made a speech. And Ted happened to be sitting in the presiding officer's chair. And I noticed, as I'm giving my speech about the introduction of this bill, that he was very interested. He wasn't working and doing other things. He turned around and was very intently listening to my speech.

And later that afternoon, on a for vote, he came - he sought me out on the floor and said he was just very interested and said, get my staff to go. And the next thing you know, it's the Jones-Cruz bill. And he did an incredible job working his caucus and the folks over in the House of Representatives to make sure that we had such bipartisan support for it. And I really appreciate his jumping in on it with me.

ELLIOTT: So this was something that worked. If we can talk now about something that appears to not be working - and that's figuring out the budget - how do you see the stalemate over the government shutdown coming to an end? Do you think the president will get his funding for the border wall?

JONES: You know, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't think that there's going to be a funding for a wall per se. The problem that we've got right now is that the wall has become a symbol more than a reality. The president has asked for money, but he's never given us a plan. The one plan that we had came last spring. And there was a bipartisan bill that had about 20 co-sponsors that would've given about $25 billion for border security, and the administration tanked it. This is more than about political symbols. This is about the 800,000 families out there who don't know what's going to happen next paycheck and are going to have to scrimp and save. Yes, they may ultimately get their back pay, but that's not going to help them pay the bills right now.

ELLIOTT: Finally, the Alabama attorney general, this week, opened an investigation into reports that Democratic operatives used Russian-style social media tactics to help you get elected in your 2017 special election against Republican Roy Moore. What was going on here?

JONES: Well, I don't know what's going on with the Alabama attorney general. I mean, all our reporting is with the federal, so I think there's a little bit more a political play into this. The Republicans in Alabama never seem to be concerned about all the Russian bots and all the things that were attacking me during the campaign. Having said that, though, I have already called for an investigation by the Federal Elections Commission and the Department of Justice. I think this has slipped under the radar, and it's probably happening in other races. And no one has fessed up to it just yet.

ELLIOTT: When did you become aware that this was going on?

JONES: When it hit The New York Times the other day. We knew we were getting hit daily with Russian bots. We were trying to monitor the others, and we really didn't see anything happening, except one time when my opponent's Twitter followers all of a sudden jumped by about 40,000. And they went out as quickly as they came on, and they all had Russian names. We didn't know what the heck to make of that. The first time we really learned that there was something else out there, a so-called experiment, was the other day when it got reported in The New York Times.

ELLIOTT: Democratic Senator Doug Jones of Alabama, co-sponsor of legislation requiring the federal government to release old civil rights cold case files, thanks so much for joining the program.

JONES: My pleasure, Debbie, anytime. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.