Hunter Ford’s conversation with Bill Baxley

Note: These columns were originally written for the Hoover Gazette last year.  I visited with former Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley in the summer of ’07 on a whim. I had always wanted to interview him.  Mr. Baxley was a gracious interview subject. He is an interesting man who played an important part in Alabama history. He is also a HUGE Alabama fan. Before the interview I did not realize Baxley had a pretty close relationship with Bear Bryant. A large portrait of Coach Bryant hangs behind Baxley’s office desk.

Bill Baxley still doing the right thing
By Hunter Ford

In 1976 Bill Baxley was a young and daring Alabama Attorney General, unmoved by physical threats and criticism surrounding his prosecution of a Klan leader for the deaths of four young black girls.

At the ripe age of 27, Baxley had taken charge of one of the state’s most important and powerful offices. He served two terms from 1971-79, and used his position to prosecute Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, one of the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963.

It was a bold move, but not popular with some folks, especially in the KKK. The Klan sent Baxley a letter in the winter of 1976, calling him an honorary black person (they used harsher language) and wishing him death.

Baxley answered the letter on official state letterhead with a now legendary one-liner.

“In response to your letter of February, 19, 1976- kiss my ass. Sincerely, Bill Baxley.”

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I had the opportunity to visit Baxley at his law office in Birmingham recently. He is still fighting the good fight, representing clients in various cases, and in various jurisdictions, including the United States Supreme Court. I wondered if, three decades ago, he was ever scared; if he feared for his life.

“Where did you get the gumption to do what you did as a young man?” I asked him.

He paused for several seconds. “I don’t know that anybody has ever asked me that before,” he said. “I was aware there was danger out there. But I was young…you feel invincible…and I knew I was doing right.”

After some more thought Baxley provided several clues to his motivation. The first being his childhood memories of the Methodist Church he attended in south Alabama.

“They would tell you these things… ‘Love your brothers’…They would hand us these cards with a picture of Jesus in a meadow surrounded by all kinds of children…yellow, red, black and white, they are precious in His sight.”

Baxley had a childhood friend, a black teenager named James Owens, who was a playmate, a mentor and virtually part of the family.

“But when we would go to get a hamburger, he couldn’t sit with us,” Baxley recalled. “If we went to the swimming pool he couldn’t come in and play with us.”

Baxley asked his parents “Why can’t James come with us?” He never got a satisfactory answer. His parents were good people who treated all people with dignity. But Baxley said the best answer they could come up with was “There are some things you can’t do anything about.”

Baxley was able to do something about the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In 1977 he convinced an all white jury to convict “Dynamite Bob.” He served as lieutenant governor of Alabama from 1983-87 and later ran unsuccessfully for governor.

During my interview with Baxley, he abruptly picked up the telephone and called his secretary. I was afraid he was about to end our discussion. Instead, he told his assistant to come to his office. “I’ve got something in my pocket I don’t want to forget and leave here with,” he explained to her and to me.

Baxley pulled a large wad of grocery receipts from his pocket. When his secretary arrived he gave specific instructions.

“Call the schools around here and ask them if they are accepting Bruno’s receipts,” he said. “When you find one that does; get these to them. It needs to be done today.”

Baxley further explained that one percent of every receipt, a dollar for every hundred spent, would be donated to the school. I had an image of Bill Baxley, successful trial lawyer, former attorney general and lieutenant governor, political icon of Alabama, buying milk and eggs and thoughtfully hoarding the receipts.

Baxley’s efforts in the 1970s not only brought “Dynamite Bob” to justice, but set a precedent for the convictions of two other accomplices. It would take two more decades, but in the 1990s, under the watch of U.S. Attorney Doug Jones, the final act of the 16th Street bombing case was played out.

Baxley shared with me a treasure chest full of memories about his experiences in Alabama politics. He told me of his interviews with famous filmmaker Spike Lee. He talked about his relationship with legendary Alabama Gov. George Wallace. And Baxley told me one of the best “Bear” Bryant stories I have ever heard.

I’m going to share some of those stories with you in my next installment of this column. Sometimes, a really good story takes awhile to tell.  I’ll leave you for now with the last question I asked Mr. Baxley. “Do you ever wish you could have been governor, do you dwell on it?”

“No, I don’t have any regrets,” he answered. “The people of Alabama were very good to me. They gave me the opportunity at an early age to serve the state in a way that few people will ever experience.”

Part Two:

Baxley tells tales of mythical figures

When I was a child and a young teenager, I observed two legendary (near mythical) figures of Alabama history- George Wallace and Paul “Bear” Bryant.

I recall very well the national championship seasons of 1978 and 79 for Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. I remember his record breaking 315th coaching victory over Auburn and his final game at the Liberty Bowl in 1981 and 82 respectively.

I remember Governor George Wallace, winning his last election in 1983 with significant help from black voters who forgave him for his segregationist stances of the 1960s and early 1970s.

So it was a special treat when I was able to sit down with former Alabama attorney general and lieutenant governor Bill Baxley and hear his reflections on these two historical giants.

As attorney general Baxley had prosecuted one of the men who bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. He said Wallace was always supportive of those efforts and allowed Baxley free use of state airplanes to conduct investigations.

“He told me that he did not hate black people because of the color of their skin,” Baxley said. “And I believed him. He did some of the things he did for political reasons, and he changed over the years. He cooperated 100 percent with the investigation (of the bombing case).”

Baxley said Wallace was a much different man after he was shot in an attempted assassination while running for president. He also said Wallace, if not for the racist baggage, may very well have been elected president.

“He was a very gifted person,” Baxley said. “If not for the ‘line in the sand’ and the ‘stand in the school house door’ I believe Wallace could have been the first southern president. I saw him at political events with other southern governors like Jimmy Carter (Georgia) and Rubin Askew (Florida). Wallace was a dollar over a dime over all of them. He had remarkable charisma.”

Baxley gave Wallace credit for embracing black voters in his later years.

“The man apologized in every way a human could apologize,” he said. “He said he was wrong. Ross Barnett (governor of Mississippi) and Lester Maddox (governor of Georgia) never did that.”

Baxley told me a great Bear Bryant story. One night during football season in the 1970s Bryant made a trip to Birmingham and called Baxley in Montgomery.

“I remember it was an unusual trip for him, I think he had to tape his television show outside of the normal schedule,” Baxley said. “But he asked me to meet with him and we met at a seafood restaurant in Hueytown called Jimez. We had a lot to eat and we had a lot to drink and we talked for nearly four hours.”

During the course of conversation, Baxley mentioned something that had been bothering him. In the Alabama football game programs for that season, several alumni chapters from various cities had placed ads congratulating local players. But even though there were black players on the team at this time, none of the black players had their pictures in the ads or were mentioned by name.

“I brought this up to Coach Bryant. I said ‘Don’t you think the black players might feel a little left out?'” Baxley recalled. “But Coach didn’t seem to think much of it. So I let it go.”

Baxley ended up riding back to Montgomery with a state trooper and Bryant was driven back to Tuscaloosa by his bodyguard Billy Varner. The next morning when Baxley got back to his office in Montgomery, Bryant had already called. Baxley returned the call promptly.

“Coach Bryant said ‘Bill, you know that thing we talked about last night?'” Baxley recalled. “Well, we drank a lot and we talked about 100 things, so it took me awhile to think about it. Then Coach said, ‘You know, about the program? You need to do something about that.'”

So Baxley called around the state to the different alumni chapters and told them Coach Bryant wanted to make sure the black players were not left out of the ads. As you could imagine, changes were made…quickly.

A final anecdote from Baxley: Years after the first 16th Street Baptist Church bombing case, activist filmmaker Spike Lee came to interview Baxley. Lee had made feature films covering racially sensitive issues and was then directing a documentary about the 16th Street Baptist Church. Baxley was anxious about how a black filmmaker with an activist bent might treat a white southerner. But Baxley said his worries were unfounded.

“Spike Lee was one of the most competent and professional people I’ve ever encountered,” Baxley said. “I ended up liking him a lot. I sure didn’t have any reason to be apprehensive.”

Baxley is prominently featured in the 1997 film “Four Little Girls” directed by Lee. It’s a fascinating documentary that I highly recommend to those interested in Alabama history.

You can read more from Hunter Ford at his blog Alagonzo.blogspot.com. Ford’s columns also appear in Bessemer’s Western Star newspaper.