Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The Baxley Era

William J. Baxley
William J. Baxley

In 1970, William J. Baxley, a 28-year-old lawyer, was elected attorney general of Alabama. Baxley grew up in Alabama and was in college when the four girls were killed in the explosion in Birmingham. The event made a strong impact on the young student and he told his classmates that if he was ever in a position to do something about it, he would. "It was a real traumatic thing to me," he told Patsy Sims, the author of The Klan (1992), "I was just hoping it would be solved and some of those who did it, would be punished, electrocuted, or whatever." After graduating college in 1964, Baxley became an assistant district attorney in the city of Dothan in south Alabama. After working as a prosecutor for nearly six years, he left the job to become the state's attorney general. Baxley notified his staff that solving the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing would be the priority of his administration.

Book cover: The Klan
Book cover: The Klan

For the next several years, Baxley's investigators worked tirelessly on the case. They re-interviewed witnesses, developed informants and traveled thousands of miles tracking down dead end leads. By 1973, it was obvious that very little progress had been made. Baxley became convinced that, to solve the crime, he needed to know what the FBI knew. Although Hoover had closed the case years before, the FBI maintained the voluminous files on the Sixteenth Street bombing. They had spent years in the Birmingham area, talked to hundreds of people and had a stable of Klan informants. And there was little doubt that the Klan was behind the murders of the four girls on September 15, 1963.

But the FBI was not eager to share its files with local authorities. The official policy of the Bureau was not to share anything without the personal approval of J. Edgar Hoover himself, a fact which hindered many state investigations and angered local law enforcement for decades. Sims writes that "the FBI ... later attributed its reluctance to assist him [Baxley] to a fear that the terrorists had direct pipelines to local and state law enforcement agencies." However the net effect of that reluctance was a stalled investigation and more years wasted.

Baxley kept the pressure on the Department of Justice with frequent visits to Washington, D.C., and personal appeals to federal officials. He appealed to the U.S. attorney general for help and wrote to members of Congress explaining how the FBI was becoming an obstruction to justice. Even so, the FBI would not budge. It wasn't until 1976, when Baxley threatened to bring the parents of the four murdered girls to a press conference on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and tell newspapers how the FBI was withholding crucial information that the bureau finally gave in. In the spring of 1976, the files on the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing were turned over to Baxley and his team of detectives.

Once again, the investigation picked up steam. Stories began to appear in the newspapers that a solution to the case was near. Rumors circulated around Birmingham that the power of the Klan would soon be broken.

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