Alabama Attorney General's 1976 Letter Told KKK Off In 3 Short Words
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
All week, we've been reading from a book called "Letters Of Note," a collection of historical letters and messages. And the story behind this next letter goes back to four young girls.
BILL BAXLEY: Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
CORNISH: You may not recognize those names. But this man, Bill Baxley, he'll never forget them. They're the names of the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing that happened in Birmingham in 1963. And when Baxley became Attorney General of Alabama less than a decade later, he scribbled down the names of those girls on a small telephone calling card.
BAXLEY: Because I want to be reminded that before my term was over, I wanted to try to solve that case and do something about the people who killed the little girls.
CORNISH: There were no charges filed in the aftermath of the bombing. So after he became AG, Bill Baxley reopened the case.
BAXLEY: It took us a couple of years to really get on the trail of the right people. And when we finally got on the right group - Chambliss and his group -
CORNISH: And this is Robert Chambliss, who eventually was convicted.
BAXLEY: Yes, he was the ringleader. He was responsible for 30 or 40 bombings over a two or three-decade period in Birmingham. His nickname was dynamite Bob and he was very proud of it. So then around about '76, it got public that we were for the first time looking at that case and making some real progress.
CORNISH: So one day you get a letter from the white supremacist Edward R. Fields, right? He's the Grand Dragon of the New Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Describe that letter. What did it say?
BAXLEY: Well, I took it as a threat. He called me a traitor to my race and how dare I prosecute or investigate these white Christian patriots and blah, blah, blah, blah. And so they demanded a response. So I sat down and wrote them a response.
CORNISH: And you write this response on official letterhead. And can you read it?
BAXLEY: I don't have it with me. But if you read it, I'll confirm it.
CORNISH: Well, it's only one line. So I'm assuming you remember it.
BAXLEY: I'd rather not repeat it.
CORNISH: OK, I tried really hard to get him to read this letter. But the thing is, Bill Baxley is really polite. And this letter, parents note, it's not so polite. So we're going to have another Southern gentleman step in here and do the honors.
WILL HUNTSBERRY, BYLINE: (Reading) Dear Dr. Fields, my response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is kiss my ass. Sincerely, Bill Baxley, Attorney General.
BAXLEY: Well, that's the way I felt then and now.
CORNISH: It's funny that you would not repeat it because it sort of - it seems like you're kind of a tough guy.
BAXLEY: Well, I think the ironic thing about the letter, the way it got public was the Klan released it. I never would've released it. I would've been afraid that my mother would've thought it was terrible of me using bad language, so I didn't tell anybody that I wrote it - just a couple of people in the office knew. But they went nuts when they got it. And they published it in their hate publication that came out every week or so.
CORNISH: Were you that angry? 'Cause it sounds like this isn't language you use.
BAXLEY: I was angry at those type of people - yeah. I think that what they had done besides just to the families and those innocent little children and to the church, they had done harm to the state of Alabama that I loved and done harm to Birmingham and done harm to all good, decent citizens by being allowed to run and mistreat people like they were. So I had no use for them
CORNISH: Well, Mr. Baxley, I guess one thing you mentioned earlier is you said you didn't want your mom to know about it. She must have found out. (Laughter).
BAXLEY: She did. But she wasn't as upset as I was afraid she would be. (Laughter).
CORNISH: Bill Baxley, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BAXLEY: Well, thank you very much, Audie.
CORNISH: Bill Baxley - he wrote that letter in 1976. The following year, he helped convict Robert Chambliss in the case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. Chambliss was one of three men eventually convicted in Latter-Day trials, the last of which ended in 2002. Thanks to our colleague Will Huntsberry for stepping in to read Bill Baxley's letter, which again, is featuring in the book "Letters Of Note." Tomorrow, a letter that connects two families across an ocean.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I can hardly believe that I'm writing to you. This is something that I had longed to do since 21 December, 1988, when your dear one came to us from the night. It was so unbelievable, haunting and desperately sad.
CORNISH: A letter from Lockerbie in our next installment. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.