ON A SEPTEMBER SUNDAY 14 years ago in Birmingham, Ala., after a summer of daily civil rights demonstrations, a bomb destroyed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, killing four black girls. To many blacks and whites, the bombing represented Birmingham's hate-filled response to the cry of its black citizens for equal rights. Last week in Birmingham that answer was rewritten: A jury of three blacks and nine whites convicted a white man of murder for the crime and sentenced him to life imprisonment.
The case against Robert E. Chamliss, a 73-year-old former member of the Ku Klux Klan, was circumstantial, but it included the damaging testimony of his niece, a minister, who recounted Mr. Chambliss's comments the day before and the day of the bombing. Asked how she could recall her uncle's words in such detail, the woman replied. "That's a weekend I shall never forget." Nor child Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley forget. His zeal in pursuing an investigation many thought would never be pursued and his ridding his office of any taint of Alabama's once-revered white supremacist political traditions persuaded the FBI to give him its voluminous files on the case. That evidence helped lead to a grand jury's indictment of Mr. Chambliss two months ago. (The grand jury is still investigating other civil rights-related bombings that occurred in Birmingham in the early 1960s.)
That the South has made enormous racial progress in the last decade is a truism. Even Birmingham, the city Martin Luther King Jr. once called the most segregated city in America, integrated its schools, public places and government work force years ago. Still, as Mr. Baxley noted in his summation to the jury, the 1963 bombing that "was not just heard in Birmingham but . . . around the world" still stigmatized the city. Now perhaps the world will take note of a more humane spirit there. As a decon of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church said, "there has been a genuine change of heart for the better in Birmingham."