On Sunday, September 15, 1963 a box of dynamite exploded under the steps (near the basement) of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four girls, Addie Mae Collins (age 14), Denise McNair (age 11), Carole Robertson (age 14), and Cynthia Wesley (age 14), were killed in the attack, and more than 20 additional people were injured.
A witness came forward and identified known Ku Klux Klan member, Robert Chambliss, of placing the bomb in the church. Chambliss was arrested and charged with murder. Police found that he possessed 122 sticks of dynamite and he was charged with having it without a permit. Less than a month later, Chambliss was found not guilty of the murders and only received a hundred-dollar fine with six-month jail time for possessing the dynamite. The fine and jail time was later overturned on appeals. The FBI identified Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. as the lead suspects in the bombing. However, by 1968, the investigation closed with no additional charges filed.
This event would become a crucial point for the Civil Rights Movement – both in Birmingham and around the country.
In 1970, Bill Baxley became the youngest person in the United States to hold a state attorney generalship. Within one week of being sworn in as Attorney General of Alabama, 29-year-old Baxley reopened the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. “Now I could do what I had sworn to do,” he remembers thinking. “Within two months in office I had set one goal for myself: to solve that bombing case.”
Of course his crusade in bringing justice to the four girls brought him some enemies. Especially with the Ku Klux Klan. In February 1976, he received a threatening letter from the KKK’s Grand Dragon Edward R. Fields who stated that Baxley re-opened the case for ‘tactical reasons.’ He also wrote, “We would like to congratulate you, you are not an honorary n*****.”
Baxley promptly wrote back to Fields on official letterhead the following:
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.
Over seven years of investigating (with previously unused FBI evidence and files), Chambliss was once again brought to court. This time, he was found guilty. He remained in prison until his death in 1985. Witnesses started coming forward and in May 2000, Blanton and Cherry also received indictments (Cash had died in 1994) in the bombings.
When asked in a recent interview where he got the “gumption” to face the KKK and the racial hostilities, Baxley stated, “I was aware there was danger out there. But I was younger, you feel invincible, and I knew I was doing right.”
“Six Dead After Church Bombing,” Washington Post, September 16, 1963.
Joyce Leviton, “After 14 Years, a Young Attorney General Closes in on the Birmingham Bombings,” People Magazine, October 31, 1977.
FBI, “A Byte Out of History – The ’63 Baptist Church Bombing,” September, 26, 2007.
Hunter Ford, “Hunter Ford’s Conversation with Bill Baxley,” Capstone Report, March 24, 2008.