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William J. “Bill” Baxley, the former Attorney General of Alabama, spoke at Kirkland House on his role in prosecuting one of the men involved with the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing—a moment often thought of as a turning point in the civil rights movement.
Baxley grew up in Alabama during an era in which segregation was forceful and prevalent. Though others around him had differing views, Baxley said, “[ I ] always, for as long as I can remember, thought that the way people were treated in the South was wrong.”
As a young adult, Baxley watched violence escalate during the civil rights movement—Theophilus E. “Bull” Connor violently targeted the Freedom Riders and frequent bombings occurred against civil rights leaders.
“It’s like a different planet [now] from the way it was back then,” said Baxley. “Birmingham had gotten the name Bombingham.”
The bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963 had a particularly strong impact on him, he said. Four young girls died as a result, while one survived with major trauma, including partial blindness.
“I got almost physically ill, and later that day I made a vow to myself that I would do something about it,” said Baxley of the day of the bombing.
Six years later, Baxley became the Attorney General of Alabama and had the authority to reopen the unresolved case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing.
Baxley described a series of challenges associated with reopening the case. The files from the original police investigation “were mostly worthless,” and the FBI was also initially reluctant to cooperate with the re-opened investigation, he said.
Baxley said that the turning point in the case came when located a key witness. The woman was able to identify a car parked by the church right before the bombing, and a main suspect in the case, Robert Chambliss.
Towards the end of the event, Baxley shared a moment from the final day of the trial of Chambliss. It was the birthday of one of the victims, Denise McNair.
Baxley said that he emphasized this in his closing statement to the jurors, saying, “You twelve have an opportunity to do something no one else can do. You have the opportunity to give her a birthday present.”
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