President Joe Biden has nominated Northeastern law scholar and renowned civil rights lawyer Margaret Burnham to serve on a new board that will make it easier to access the records of unsolved murders of Black people during the Civil Rights era—and possibly solve some of the lingering crimes.
Burnham was the first Black woman to serve as a state court judge in Massachusetts and founded the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern, where she also serves as university distinguished professor of law. She is among four scholars from across the country nominated by Biden to serve on the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Review Board.
“This is a true honor, and a recognition of Northeastern’s role as a leader in unearthing this important history,” Burnham said.
Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern, said, “Judge Burnham’s work to uncover the crimes of the past have brought, and will continue to bring, justice to families for generations to come. We are in awe of her tireless commitment to civil rights and restorative justice, and congratulate her on this momentous nomination.”
The review board was established during the presidency of Donald Trump as part of the Civil Rights Cold Case Records Act, though Trump didn’t staff the board and its $1 million budget remained unspent.
Now, though, if Biden’s nominations are confirmed by the U.S. Senate, that will change.
Members of the review board will be tasked with collecting and reviewing dozens, if not hundreds, of unsolved murder cases from the 1940s through ’70s. The board will have the power to subpoena new information on these cases and the ability to make the records available to the public.
According to a Congressional report, “The older these unsolved cases become, the less likely they are to be solved by the DOJ [U.S. Department of Justice], and, in fact, public disclosure of information may actually increase the likelihood of enforcement by crowdsourcing the materials.”
Burnham has been at the helm of such work for much of her professional career, which she began at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In the 1970s, she represented civil rights and political activists, including Angela Davis. In 1977, she became the first Black woman to serve in the Massachusetts judiciary, when she joined the Boston Municipal Court bench as an associate justice. In 1982, she became a partner in a Boston civil rights firm with an international human rights practice. In 1993, South African president Nelson Mandela appointed Burnham to serve on an international human rights commission to investigate alleged human rights violations within the African National Congress.
Burnham was named to the 2016 class of Andrew Carnegie Fellows, an honor recognizing a select group of scholars for their significant work in the social sciences and humanities.
As founder of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice Project at Northeastern, Burnham has led teams of law students in uncovering and reconciling hundreds of unsolved murders of Black people during the Jim Crow era.
In 2010, she headed a team of outside counsel and law students in a landmark case that settled a federal lawsuit: Burnham’s team accused Franklin County Mississippi law enforcement officials of assisting Klansmen in the kidnapping, torture, and murder of two 19-year-olds, Henry Dee and Charles Eddie Moore. The case and settlement received national headlines.
More recently, members of the CRRJ brought to light the 1948 killing of Rayfield Davis, a 53-year-old Black man beaten to death by Horace Miller, a 20-year-old white man who confessed yet escaped prosecution for his crime. “Murder in Mobile,” a documentary about the crime and the subsequent search for justice, has won a number of awards.
Biden’s other nominees for the five-person review board include Clayborne Carson, a Stanford University professor and scholar on the life of Martin Luther King Jr.; Gabrielle Dudley, an instruction archivist at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University; and Henry Klibanoff, a Pulitzer Prize- and Peabody Award-winning journalist.