A 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
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.”