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John Lewis recalls first meeting MLK and an apology from a Klansman

John Lewis just wanted to go to college.

The 17-year-old had applied to a small college near his home in Troy, Ala., but never heard back. Most likely, he believed, because he was black.

So Lewis wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr., a charismatic young minister from Atlanta who at the time — in 1957 — was one of the driving forces in the budding civil rights movement.

“I told him I needed his help,” Lewis said.

But by the time King received the letter, Lewis had enrolled in a school in Tennessee. Still, the civil rights leader tracked Lewis down, sent him a Greyhound bus ticket and instructed him to travel to Montgomery for a meeting during his spring break.

“A young lawyer named Fred Gray … met me and drove me to the First Baptist Church in downtown Montgomery,” Lewis said. “I was so scared.”

As he entered an office in the church, he saw King and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy standing behind the desk.

“Dr. King said, ‘John Lewis? Are you the boy from Troy?’

“And I said, ‘Dr. King, I am John Robert Lewis.’ I gave my whole name. And he started calling me the Boy from Troy. It changed my life.”

Lewis, now a Democratic congressman from Georgia, who would go on to be regarded as a civil rights legend in his own right for leading the Freedom Rides and the Selma to Montgomery marches, recalled his first meeting with King during a conversation with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez that the department held Friday morning as one of its black history month events.

Later in the event, Lewis recounted another of his more emotional stories: receiving an apology from a Ku Klux Klan member who had attacked him during the Freedom Rides.

“Back in 1961, the same year that President Obama was born, black and white people could not board a Greyhound bus … and be seated together,” Lewis recalled, speaking of the segregation that led to the Freedom Rides. “In South Carolina, in a little town called Rock Hill … my seatmate — a young white gentleman — and two of us tried to enter the so-called white waiting room. We were attacked by the Klan, beaten and left in a pool of blood.”

Those beatings left Lewis and other Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee leaders with whom he was traveling badly bruised, but the Freedom Rides pressed on.

Years later, soon after Obama’s election as the nation’s first black president, Lewis’s congressional office got a phone call.

“Several years later, in 2009, one of the guys that beat us came to my office on Capitol Hill, with his son, he was in his 70s, his son was in his 40s, and said ‘Mr. Lewis, I’m one of the people that beat you. I want to apologize, will you forgive me?’

“His son started crying. He started crying. And I said, ‘I forgive you,'” Lewis said.

Lewis has told the story of the reconciliation before and traveled back to Rock Hill to again meet with the man, Elwin Wilson, who died in 2013.

“That is the power and the discipline of nonviolence,” Lewis said Friday. “To have the capacity to forgive and move on.”