William Joseph Baxley II (born June 27, 1941), is an American Democratic politician and attorney from Dothan, Alabama.
In 1964, Baxley graduated from the University of Alabama School of Law in Tuscaloosa. Having previously served as district attorney in Houston County, he was elected to the first of two consecutive terms as Attorney General of Alabama in 1970, and 1974 respectively, holding the post from 1971 to 1979. At the age of twenty-eight, he won the Democratic nomination for attorney general in 1970, in an upset over incumbent McDonald Gallion. Baxley, quite incorrectly, was perceived as the candidate closer politically to George Wallace, an impression he did not dispute throughout the election contest. At the time of his swearing-in, he was the youngest person in U.S. history to hold a state attorney generalship. At the end of his attorney generalship he lost the 1978 Democratic primary for governor in an upset himself. He was widely expected to seek the post again in 1982. However, when former Governor George C. Wallace entered the contest, Baxley made it clear he would not run against him and instead sought the office of lieutenant governor, to which he was elected. From 1983 to 1987, he served a single term as the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Alabama before running another unsuccessful campaign for governor in 1986. During his time in public office, Baxley aggressively prosecuted industrial polluters, strip miners, and corrupt elected officials. He appointed the state's first African American assistant attorney general, Myron Thompson, who later became a U.S. District Judge.
Baxley incurred the wrath of the Ku Klux Klan when he reopened the case of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing. In a letter, the Klan threatened him, compared him to John F. Kennedy, and made him an "honorary nigger," but Baxley responded, on official state letterhead: "My response to your letter of February 19, 1976, is—kiss my ass."
As attorney general, Baxley was made famous for his most prestigious case against the Ku Klux Klan, his 1977 prosecution of Robert Chambliss for the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in September 1963.
"We know who did it," Alabama Attorney General Baxley said Wednesday as he confirmed that he has reopened the investigation of a church bombing that killed four young black girls in Birmingham in 1963. Baxley said in an interview with Birmingham radio station that the list of suspects had been narrowed down, but he declined to predict if or when arrests would be made. He said premature published reports about the investigation might have hurt. "There are some people in Jefferson County who ought to be pretty nervous right now," Baxley said in an earlier telephone interview. The Sunday, Sept. 15, 1963, dynamite blast at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church occurred during the time of racial demonstrations led by the late Martin Luther King. Twenty-three other people in the church were hurt and debris was scattered for blocks. Baxley later confirmed that he had talked to [undercover FBI agent Gary] Rowe, and he was cooperative, "But we were working on this thing long before that. We had a lot of stuff already. Rowe was just another person we interviewed." He said Rowe didn't give him a list of names as such, "but nine is too many."
Baxley succeeded in convicting Chambliss with minimal evidence (as the FBI refused to relinquish tapes necessary to the case). The victory eased the minds of the parents of Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley and Denise McNair.
Baxley appeared in the Spike Lee documentary on the church bombing case, titled Four Little Girls.
In 1978, Baxley, then the sitting Attorney General, ran to succeed the term-limited George Wallace as governor of Alabama. Baxley lost the Democratic primary to political newcomer Fob James, who went on to defeat Republican nominee Guy Hunt of Cullman. Baxley's campaign leaned heavily on the fact that James been a Republican and returned to the Democratic Party to make his gubernatorial race. Baxley was endorsed by University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, who did not want to see James, a graduate of archrival Auburn University, in the governor's mansion.
Guy Hunt and questions of Democratic party loyalty both reappeared in another Baxley campaign eight years later. In 1986, the Democratic primary for the gubernatorial race saw then Attorney General Charles Graddick of Mobile in a runoff with Baxley, then the lieutenant governor. Graddick won by a few thousand votes, but Baxley appealed to the Alabama Supreme Court, which ruled Graddick had violated primary regulations by encouraging Republicans to “cross over” and vote as Democrats. The court told the Democratic Party to hold another election or to select Baxley as the nominee. The party hence confirmed Baxley as its candidate.
Accustomed to a one-party state in which the open primary for the Democratic nomination was considered tantamount to election, many Alabama voters took out their frustrations by voting against Baxley and for Guy Hunt, the GOP nominee. Hunt won the election by a large margin, giving Alabama its first Republican governor since Reconstruction.
Baxley was married to Lucy Baxley, the Alabama Lieutenant Governor from 2003 to 2007. Baxley was a strong supporter of his ex-wife's campaign, giving political advice to her and contributed and raised over $250,000. In 1987, he divorced Lucy and in 1990 he married Marie (Prat) Baxley, who had been a reporter working on his campaign.
Since 1962, Baxley has served in the Alabama Army National Guard, beginning as an enlisted clerk and rising through the ranks to retire as a colonel on May 29, 2001 (though he turned down the position of General), JAG Corps.
In 1979, Baxley founded the firm known today as Baxley, Dillard, McKnight & James in Birmingham, where he is presently an attorney. He primarily represents large business corporations, yet continues to represent individuals of modest means. Those efforts have earned him the distinction of being selected as a fellow in the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.