William was the son of his John H. Bankhead and the former Tallulah Brockman, and the brother of John H. Bankhead II. As a young man he was known as a brilliant public speaker and for his fun-loving personality, and considered becoming a stage actor.
At the University of Alabama he played on the first football team and was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity before graduating in 1893. He went on to earn a law degree at Georgetown University in 1895, after which he was admitted to practice in Alabama and opened a law office in Huntsville.
In 1898 Bankhead began serving as City Attorney for Huntsville. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 1900. He moved to Jasper in 1905 and was appointed solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit of Alabama in 1910. He resigned in 1914 to seek the Democratic nomination for U. S. Representative from the 7th Congressional District of Alabama, but lost to incumbent John Burnett.
When a new 10th Congressional District of Alabama was created in 1916, Bankhead was elected its first and only Representative, taking office on March 4, 1917. The 10th District was abolished by reapportionment in 1932, and Bankhead was elected to the 7th District seat, succeeding Miles Allgood, in 1933. In 1934 Bankhead was chosen House Majority Leader. On June 4, 1936 he was elected to succeed Jo Byrns of Tennessee, who had died that morning, as Speaker of the House. He died in office himself on September 15, 1940 and was succeeded by Sam Rayburn of Texas.
Bankhead was survived by his second wife, Florence, and his daughter, actress Tallulah Bankhead. His funeral at First Methodist Church of Jasper was attended by President Franklin Roosevelt, his cabinet, 63 members of the House, 30 senators, and tens of thousands of other mourners. He was buried at Oak Hill Cemetery just north of Jasper.
The William B. Bankhead National Forest is named in his honor. His residence, built in 1924 in Jasper's North Highlands neighborhood, is now owned by the Walker Area Community Foundation and opened to the public in 2010 as the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.
- "William B. Bankhead" obituary (September 19, 1940) The Mountain Eagle - via rootsweb.ancestry.com
- Heacock, Walter J. (1952) "William Brockman Bankhead: A Biography." Ph.D. dissertation. University of Wisconsin
- Heacock, Walter J. (August 1955) "William B. Bankhead and the New Deal." Journal of Southern History. No. 21, pp. 347-59
- William B. Bankhead (September 13, 2010) Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia - accessed September 13, 2010
- William B. Bankhead at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress