Elwin Wilson, the former Ku Klux Klan supporter who publicly apologized for years of violent racism, including the beating of a black Freedom Rider who went on to become a congressman from Georgia, died March 28 at a hospital in South Carolina. He was 76.
His wife, Judy Wilson, said he died after a bout with the flu and after years of problems with his heart and lungs.
She told the Associated Press that her husband was relieved he lived long enough to try to make amends for years of racial hatred. He detailed his deeds at length when he called the Herald, a newspaper in Rock Hill, S.C., to apologize shortly after President Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“He said he had it on his heart for a long time,” his wife said. “He said he wished he could find the ones he mistreated and apologize to them all.”
Among Mr. Wilson’s actions were cross burnings; hanging a black doll in a noose outside his home; flinging cantaloupes at black men; hurling a jack handle at a black boy; and brutally beating John Lewis, who today is a congressional representative from Georgia, at a Rock Hill bus station in 1961.
“His story is a powerful story; his story must not be forgotten,” Lewis told the Herald in a phone interview. “His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told.”
Mr. Wilson apologized in several public venues, including during a meeting with Lewis at the congressman’s Capitol Hill office. They also told their story on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”
“All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I’ve done,” Mr. Wilson said in an April 2009 interview with the Associated Press. “And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks.”
This month, Lewis received apologies from the police chief of Montgomery, Ala., and the governor. But Mr. Wilson’s apology remained special.
“He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me . . . for a private citizen to come along and say, ‘I’m the one that attacked you; I’m the one who beat you.’ It was very meaningful.”