by Joe Wilhelm Jr.
Two guest speakers visiting The Jacksonville Bar Association presented their stories of convicting the men responsible for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 in Birmingham.
Both William “Bill” Baxley and Douglas “Doug” Jones were able to prove that justice delayed is not justice denied.
As Alabama Attorney General in 1971, Baxley was able to reopen the case that involved the deaths of four girls after a bomb exploded in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Sept. 15, 1963.
The expanse of the church basement auditorium could accommodate the large numbers that would attend meetings of those involved in the civil rights movement, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
No charges were filed after the initial investigation of the bombing.
“The day before I got sworn in (as attorney general), I said Now this is the chance to go ahead and do something about that case that you wanted to do seven years ago, and this time you can really do something about it,’” said Baxley.
“They had issued me this card that had phone numbers on it. We didn’t have 800 numbers back then. Because I traveled all over the state, I knew I’d be using it every day,” he said.
“So I sat down the day before I was sworn in and wrote each one of those girls’ names in each corner of that card. I knew that every time I used that card I would look at those names and remember that I wanted to do something.”
The card included the names of 11-year-old Denise McNair and three 14-year-olds: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins.
They had gone into the ladies’ lounge at the church to change into their dresses to attend the adult service after Sunday School.
Two weeks after being sworn in, Baxley began to review the
information from the investigation and was bewildered by the direction that law enforcement had taken.
“Most of the man-hours spent on investigation at the state and local level were spent on this crazy theory that blacks had blown up the church themselves in an effort to get some sort of sympathy for their cause,” said Baxley.
Baxley led the prosecution of Ku Klux Klan member Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss and Baxley’s only regret was that he wasn’t able to convict more of those who were involved.
But his closing argument caught the attention of a law student who would carry on his work.
During the closing argument, someone pointed out to Baxley that it was the day of Denise McNair’s birthday.
“At the end of an hourlong argument, I told the jury, ‘You have the chance to do something that no one else will ever be able to do. You can bring her a birthday present. You can bring her killer to justice,’” said Baxley.
Jones, a Samford University Cumberland School of Law student, was in the courtroom to hear the closing argument and wanted to follow in Baxley’s footsteps.
“Not in my wildest dreams, as a law student, did I think I would have the chance to pick up where Bill left off,” said Jones.
As U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama from 1997-2001, he served as the lead trial attorney in the successful prosecutions of two former Ku Klux Klan members for their involvement in the bombing.
Though he, like Baxley, is in private practice now, Jones said there is still work to be done.
“We face so many challenges. Our legal system faces so many challenges. Our country is getting ever more diverse and will continue that role and we have got to remember the lessons of the past or we are forever doomed to repeat them,” said Jones.
“It was a case that Bill will tell you will change your life. I wish every lawyer or judge could have a case that meant so much to so many people,” he said.
“The bottom line is this. It was our job and it is never too late to just do the right thing, to seek the truth, to seek justice. That’s our job as lawyers,” said Jones.