20110428-tows-freedom-riders-14-300x205A FORMER Ku Klux Klan supporter who publicly apologized for years of violent racism, including the beating of a civil rights activist who went on to become a beloved Georgia congressman, has died.  Elwin Wilson was 76.

His wife, Judy Wilson, said he died on Thursday at a hospital in South Carolina after a bout with the flu and suffering for years with heart and lung problems.

She said in a telephone interview on Sunday that her husband was relieved he lived long enough to try to make amends for years of racial hatred.

Mr. Wilson came to our collective attention in 2009, when he began a difficult journey of forgiveness.  He first told his story to the Rock Hill newspaper, went in person to meet many of his neighbors, traveled to Capitol Hill to apologize to the Congressman and then went on Oprah to tell his story. The Oprah show was part of her tribute to the Freedom Riders, more on that here.

Mr. Wilson’s chief concern was his meeting with G-d upon his death. While I’m surely no authority, I can imagine he was welcomed with open arms.

All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I’ve done,” Wilson told the Associated Press in 2009. “And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks.”

“My daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind. And that’s what I’ve done, and I’m not ashamed of it. I feel like I’m apologizing to the world right now,” Wilson told CNN’s Don Lemon in 2009.

The fast facts here.

A moving NPR clip here.

Congressman John Lewis on Mr. Wilson’s passing.

Rep. John Lewis Saddened by Passing of Elwin Wilson,

Rock Hill Man Who Apologized

March 30, 2013                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      Contact:  Brenda Jones

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                            

Upon learning about the death of Elwin Wilson, the former Ku Klux Klan member who beat him when the Freedom Rides stopped at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina in 1961 and apologized for his actions decades later, Rep. John Lewis made this statement:

“I am very sorry to learn of Elwin Wilson’s passing.  It is my prayer that he will rest in peace since he made amends to many of those he had injured.  He told me he wanted to be right when he met his Maker, and I believe Elwin Wilson accomplished what he set out to do.

“We can all learn a valuable lesson from the life of this one man.  He demonstrates to all of us that we fall down, but we can get up.  We all make blunders, but we can get on the right road toward building a greater sense of community.

“Elwin Wilson experienced what Martin Luther King Jr. told all of us that “hate is too heavy a burden to bear”. He demonstrated the power of love and the effectiveness of non-violent direct action not only to fix legislative injustice but to mend the wounded souls in our society, the soul of the victim as well as the perpetrator.  Elwin Wilson shows us, that people can change, and when they put down the mechanisms of division and separation to pick up the tools of reconciliation, they can help build a greater sense of community in our society, even between the most unlikely people.  Elwin Wilson proves that we are all one people, one family, the human family, and what affects one of us affect us all.

“I will never forget Elwin Wilson.  I speak about our meeting often.  In fact, just this morning I mentioned him to 147 students from California, New York, and Ohio.  And I spoke about him earlier this month on the pilgrimage to Alabama.  Because this one man had the courage to seek the power of forgiveness, he stepped off the sidelines and into the pages of American history forever.”

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3 Responses to Rest in Peace, Elwin Wilson

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  2. BEZERKO says:

    It’s a familiar story, someone winds up in the right place even though they started from the wrong place.

  3. JMPrince says:

    Thanks for this Juliana, More from Cong. Lewis on ‘The Art and Discipline of Non Violence’ was heard on NPR/APM’s ‘On Being’ program with Krista Tippet this past week here:
    http://www.onbeing.org/program/john-lewis-on-the-art-and-discipline-of-nonviolence/5126

    It’s a fine reminder of some very important heavy history. Not all of it’s redemptive, and it’s seldom well recalled and so we have to be reminded.

    The famous ‘Selma to Montgomery’ Civil Rights March occurred in 1965, with the first of these culminating in the infamous filmed police riot charge into the assembled non violent marchers on ‘Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965 at the Edmund Petits Bridge in Alabama. It’s the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the SNCC campaign to register black voters in Selma.

    If John Lewis and his compatriots took a moment to reflect back 50 years from the moment he was first arrested in Selma for trying to register these disenfranchised voters in 1963, this is what they might have (barely) recalled.

    In 1915 The US House rejected a proposal giving women the right to vote. (They’d not be able to vote for another 5 years, after the adoption of the 19th Amendment in 1920). The 1st coast to coast telephone call was placed between Alexander Graham Bell in NYC & Thomas A. Watson in SF. German war Zeppelins successfully bombed the British coast, killing 20 during WW1. The first stones were put in place for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. The infamously racist but box office boffo film ‘The Birth of a Nation’ by son of the South “D. W.” Griffith, is premiered in La. Hailed as a marvel of the new movie making art, it also reignites interest in the KKK, presenting a skewed & scathingly damning view of the entire Reconstruction Era, ushering in a more hardened racist sentiment deepening the Jim Crow era across the nation.

    In 1915 Leo Frank was lynched in Marietta by some of their ‘finest’ citizens. “Wrongly accused. Falsely convicted. Wantonly murdered,” his lynching helps motivate the founding of the Anti-Defamation League the same year. They immediately become determined foes of the KKK, and allies of Civil Rights.

    It’s always very long strange trip. It’s never comfortable for most. The long arc of history might bend toward justice, but then again a determined retrograde USSC might blow that up in an errant afternoon before lunch. Me? I expect this is the last year we’ll enjoy the full benefits of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That monumental foundational civil rights law will now likely not survive to see it’s 50th anniversary unscathed.

    JMP