When Bill Baxley was 28 years old he upset the political establishment’s candidate and was elected as Alabama’s Democratic Attorney General in 1970. Shortly after his election he reopened the investigation into the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church, an act of domestic terrorism carried out by members of the KKK who murdered four young African-American girls.
In this bombing, several Klansmen detonated over a dozen sticks of dynamite while churchgoers were preparing to hear a sermon on “a love that forgives,” and over 20 people were injured in addition to those slain. The attack occurred in 1963 and was one of the turning points that helped the Civil Rights Act gain support, although none of its perpetrators were brought to justice at the time.
Baxley heard about the bombing when he was a student at the University of Alabama, and at the time he “wanted to do something but [didn’t] know what.” When Baxley became Attorney General he decided to do what he could to solve the case, even though the police records at the time of the crime were far from complete and the FBI was reluctant to share its information on the case with local officials out of fear that “the terrorists had direct pipelines to those offices.”
Baxley’s intentions earned him the ire of the KKK, and Edward Fields, the Grand Dragon of the New Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan wrote to Baxley in 1976, accusing him “of reopening the case for tactical reasons” and wishing that he would be “DEAD…….a long time dead…It may happen sooner than you think.”
Baxley dispensed with any niceties and told Fields simply, on official letterhead, to: “kiss my ass.”
THE ATTORNEY GENERAL
STATE OF ALABAMA
February 28, 1976
“Dr.” Edward R. Fields
National States Rights Party
P.O. Box 1211 Marietta, Georgia 30061
Dear “Dr.” Fields:
My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is – kiss my ass.
Despite the KKK’s efforts, Baxley reopened the case almost immediately and ultimately succeeded in doing “what few thought possible”: a lifetime sentencing for Klansman Robert Chambliss. Chambliss was a member of Fields’s New Order Knights and was convicted approximately a year after Baxley’s phenomenal response to Fields. Baxley’s 90 minute closing statement moved many in the jury and in the audience to tears, and local media at the time credited it with swinging the case decisively in his favor.
So what happened to Baxley? He was first elected in 1970 in an upset election and he won reelection unopposed in 1974. During his time in office he appointed Alabama’s first African-American assistant attorney general who later became a federal judge.
The bombing itself is back in the news because Doug Jones, the prosecuting attorney, secured a conviction of an additional Klansman, Thomas Edwin Blanton, in 2001 and Jones just became the Democratic nominee for the Alabama special Senate election.
In 1978, Baxley ran for governor to succeed term-limited George Wallace, but lost in the primary to the ultimate winner, Fob James, who had just switched to the Democratic primary shortly before the race.
Baxley served as Alabama’s Lieutenant Governor from 1983-1987, when he ran for governor once again. Baxley lost the primary to the Attorney General, Charles Graddick, whose campaign allegedly recruited Republicans to cross over and vote for him in the primary. Baxley appealed the election results to the Alabama Supreme Court, which told the Democratic Party to either have an entirely new election or select Baxley as their candidate. They opted to forego another primary and nominated Baxley. However, Alabama voters took their frustrations out on this decision against Baxley and voted for Republican Guy Hunt (who lost to Fob James, who was elected governor again in 1994 as a Republican!), making him the first Republican Governor of Alabama since Reconstruction.
All in all, Baxley knew not only how to tell the KKK off, but to put its members behind bars.
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