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John Kerry, MLK and Access to Records

Over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend some attention turned to US Senator John Kerry's (D-MA) renewed effort to open the FBI records of Dr. King. Civil Rights Cold Case reporter Jerry Mitchell reported:

U.S. Sen. John Kerry plans to introduce legislation next week that would pave the way for the release of thousands of FBI documents on the life and death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Kerry, D-Mass., said the bill, which failed in 2006, can pass this year in honor of King. "I want the world to know what he stood for," Kerry said. "And I want his personal history preserved and examined by releasing all of his records."

The bill calls for creating a Martin Luther King Records Collection at the National Archives that would include all government records related to King. The bill also would create a five-member independent review board that would identify and make public all documents from agencies including the FBI — just as a review board in 1992 made public documents related to the 1963 John F. Kennedy assassination.

Mitchell spoke with Kerry and other prominent supporters of the legislation, including US Representative Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and pulitzer prize winning King biographer Taylor Branch. MItchell also spoke with others from the Civil Rights Cold Case Project, who believe Kerry should expand the focus of his important initiative.

Hank Klibanoff, managing editor of the Cold Case Truth and Justice Project, believe[s] Kerry's idea should be expanded to include the release of documents involving not only King's assassination, but also other racial slayings from the civil rights era....

Klibanoff met last summer with Attorney General Eric Holder and suggested creating an independent review board to make public "all files, documents and other historic materials related to the racial terror and hate crimes that occurred in the South during the modern civil rights era."

In an Oct. 27 letter, Holder responded that the Justice Department was discussing the best ways to make "the most responsible public disclosure possible."...

Ben Greenberg of Boston, whose father served as a special assistant to King in 1962 and 1963, praised Kerry's legislation. "The murder of Martin Luther King Jr. was a trauma that our country will not recover from unless we can clear the air about what really happened," he said.

Greenberg, who has spent recent years investigating a number of unsolved killings from the era, including the 1964 killing of Clifton Walker near Woodville, said documents on many other racial slayings from the 1950s and 1960s should be made public, too.

"The effects of these murders linger throughout the South," he said.

Some FBI documents continue to conceal the name of suspects in these killings, he said. "The people named in the documents, the family members and the perpetrators are dying every day. It is time for the truth to be told and for justice to be done. We need the information while there is still time to use it."...

Recently the FBI asked for the public's help in solving 33 killings from the civil rights era — a third of them in Mississippi.

Journalist John Fleming, whose work for The Anniston Star led to an arrest in the 1965 killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson in Selma, Ala., questioned how the FBI can ask for the public's help in solving killings but fail to make public the names of crucial witnesses who could shed light on these cases.

Boston Globe reporter Bryan Bender was also on the story.

Nearly half a century after the height of the civil rights movement, hundreds of thousands of pages of government files about the volatile era remain shielded from the American public, buried in FBI field office cabinets, blocked by resistant bureaucracies, or available only with large sections blacked out, according to US officials and researchers.

The situation has prompted a new push in Congress, led by Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, to require that all records relating to the life and death of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. be located, reviewed, and released by a review board at the National Archives similar to those established for the assassination of President John F. Kennedy and for Nazi war criminals

Kerry’s plan to introduce legislation this week, however, is seen as only the first step in a broader movement to force the government to disclose what it knows - and did - about violence against blacks during the civil rights era, including scores of unsolved lynching and bombing cases.

Bender spoke with Thomas Moore, who, as brother of murder victim Charles Eddie Moore, now works with Cold Case project as a family advocate.

Thomas Moore is among the few family members to see the murder case of a loved one reopened decades after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that was only after a journalist obtained previously unreleased federal and state records about the killing of his brother, Charles.

“It wasn’t until 2005 that I was able to receive the unredacted FBI files,’’ Moore said. And it was not until this month, he added, that he obtained the Mississippi autopsy photos.

As for countless other cases, Moore said he believes “there is still a lot of information out there. It should have been released a long time ago.’’

Bender spoke with me as well:

Part of the problem, many researchers say, is that unless they know which specific documents to request there is little chance of success, and as a result there needs to be an alternate mechanism along the lines of what Kerry is advocating for King files.

They insist that what the government knew at the time about widespread racial violence could be crucial in solving some murders, such as the brutal killing of Clifton Walker, a father of five who was shot in the face on his way home from work in Woodville, Miss., in 1964.

“The FBI documents I have [on the case] are highly redacted. I stare at them every day,’’ said Ben Greenberg, 40, a freelance journalist in Somerville who is working with the Cold Case Project. “If I knew whose name was under there or could better piece together what circumstances are being described, I’d be further down the path.’’

He thinks government files about a rash of racially motivated killings at the time in southwest Mississippi might contain information that could help solve multiple cases.

“If these files were more broadly available and not redacted they could provide a road map,’’ said Greenberg, whose father, Paul, worked for King in the early 1960s.

There's more in Bender and Mitchell's articles.

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