During his 1976 prosecution of Klansman Robert Chambliss in the Alabama church bombing case, the mail for (then) Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley included little in the way of praise. The norm was racist rants, personal insults and death threats. Unfazed, Baxley placed them in a file he labeled "Kooks and Nuts" and has now released to me.
He'd shared just one of the letters in the past -- and it went viral: in February 1976 Edward Fields, Grand Dragon of the New Order Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, sent a vitriol-laced note that accused Baxley of reopening the 1963 case solely to further his political career. The message was unique only in that it sought a response. On official state letterhead, Baxley dutifully obliged, as follows:
In fact, Baxley launched his probe into Birmingham's 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, which killed four girls, after discovering -- to his dismay -- that FBI investigators had never acted on their belief that "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss and three other Klansmen were guilty. Lacking physical evidence, forthcoming witnesses and unbiased juries, the Bureau closed the case with no convictions, save a relative slap on Chambliss's wrist for possession of dynamite without a permit -- and that conviction was soon reversed.
Reviving the case brought Baxley a torrent of additional letters, like that from a Tennessean going by 100% WHITE, who wrote, "You have been so good at digging, I hope soon there will be a 6 foot hole dug for you and you will be smothered in 6 feet of horse dung."
Such mail not only failed to rattle Baxley, it redoubled his conviction that trying Chambliss was the right move.
Filing away the letters, Baxley went to court. His file soon swelled. Typical is the note he received on August 14, 1976, which began, "We would like to congratulate you, you are now an honorary N-----," and added, "We hope and pray that you are soon blessed with the same condition that the n----- lover Kennedy contracted which is DEAD...It may happen sooner than you think too." Signed, "KKK."
Another letter, to which the sender attached his Knights of the Ku Klux Klan business card, is addressed to "Bill (Black) Baxley" and proclaims, "We WHITE PEOPLE in Ala. Plan to beat the HELL out of you."
A vast and disproportionate majority of the Kooks and Nuts mail came from well outside of Alabama. A postcard from Disneyland (below) addresses Baxley as "America's Simon Wiesenthal" -- which, one may conclude from the ensuing screed, isn't meant as a compliment.
From all over the United States came variations of the mantra, "The only reason that you are white is your father and mother believed in and practiced segregation."
Baxley also received a slew of contemptuous letters from a man in Wasilla, Alaska, who identified himself by name and also as "a member of the 'Neo-Nazi' National States Rights Party, as you and the rest of the n-----s (white and black) like to call it." He went on to warn, "[Y]ou will not always be...under the care and feeding of the Alabama State Police and whatever group of n-----s you have surrounded yourself with."
Baxley shrugged all of it off, going on to obtain a conviction in trial -- in and of itself one of the more thrilling stories in American legal history -- and put Chambliss behind bars for life. Baxley's inbox then overflowed with feedback along the lines of "Traitor!" That letter was signed, "Bedford Forrest" -- Nathan Bedford Forrest, a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had died 101 years earlier. "Forrest" added, "In my court you would be found guilty of crimes against the race...If I could decide your case I would exile you for life to beautiful downtown Harlem."
Now in private practice, Baxley hopes the letters will be instructive. At the time he received them, he says, "They showed that all of the hatred in the world didn't end in Hitler's bunker or at Nuremberg." Today, he reflects, "A major difference is the people who possess that kind of hatred are no longer protected by law enforcement. More and more, the hatred is marginalized, but, regrettably, it hasn't been erased."
To view the aforementioned letters, as well as more mail, see Bill Baxley's Kooks and Nuts File here. Notes: 1) The language is offensive, to say the least; 2) Real names and street addresses have been redacted per Mr. Baxley's request, in deference to his correspondents' privacy.
A 1976 postcard sent to Bill Baxley; see more his file here.