Like “taxes” and “colonoscopy,” “government” is one of those words that make Americans squirm. It’s either too big or not big enough. It’s equally ineffective or overbearing. It’s the glue that holds together our democracy, or it’s a wedge that drives us apart.
Sometimes, though, government works.
Earlier this week, President Trump signed into law the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Collection Act, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by U.S. Sens. Doug Jones, D-Birmingham, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The new law requires the National Archives and Records Administration to collect cold-case records from unsolved criminal civil-rights cases and make them available to the public. Many of files are previously redacted FBI documents.
This law is a victory for the public, for journalists, for historians, for students and, most important, for families of those whose loved ones may have been victims of unsolved civil-rights cases.
The “government works” part of this story isn’t its passage into law. (It’s also not meant as a snarky twist on the government’s current shutdown.) Instead, it’s how the law came to be in the first place.
Here’s how Jones explained its origin recently to National Public Radio:
“Two years before my election, I'd gotten a call from some high school students in New Jersey,” he said. “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.”
Don’t miss the symbolism. Before joining the Senate, Jones, then a U.S. attorney, successfully prosecuted two Ku Klux Klan members for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four girls. He isn’t merely an interested senator; he’s a rock star in civil-rights circles. On these topics, his support is invaluable.
We consider this a remarkable example of participation in American government. New Jersey school kids and their teacher called Jones. Jones joined the Senate, then found a Republican ally in Cruz. “I really appreciate his jumping in on it with me,” Jones told NPR. Congress passed it, the president signed it. A new law -- a needed new law -- was born.
On this, government worked as it should, from the ground up, all the way to the president’s desk.