What KKK Member Elwin Wilson Learned Before He Died

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On Monday Elwin Wilson, a reformed Ku Klux Klansman, will be laid to rest. His life was notable for the hate therein — cross burnings, cantaloupe throwing, and, most famously, the beating of John Lewis — until around four years ago, when Wilson began apologizing, making his history, after he died last week, worth another look.

"He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me," legendary civil-rights leader and Georgia Rep. John Lewis told South Carolina's Rock Creek Herald for its obituary of Wilson, referring to an incident at a bus station in the city. "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.... His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told."

Lewis and Wilson's lives intersected in May of 1961, as the Herald's John Mcfadden reports:

On May 9, he and his seatmate on the bus, a white man named Albert Bigelow, walked into the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill bus station. They were jumped by a group of young white men, who beat them and left them bloodied, Lewis said.

One of those men – the only to since come forward and seek atonement – was Elwin Wilson.

Lewis, of course, was part of the Freedom Riders, civil rights activists who fought segregation by riding interstate buses and were subject to violence from the KKK, which some law enforcement officials allowed. With the Supreme Court taking up the Voting Rights Act and another anniversary arriving, Vice-President Biden walked earlier this month at the Edmund Pettis Bridge with Lewis, who was among many to beaten there on 1965 as civil rights leaders marched out of Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery. As the AP connects in its Wilson obit, Lewis received apologies from the Montgomery police chief and the Alabama governor this month — about four years later after Wilson began to try to talk about went wrong.

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Wilson started his public apology tour in 2009, shortly after President Obama's inauguration. "All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I've done," Wilson said in an interview with the AP at the time. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."  Late that year, Wilson and Lewis recevied the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation, and were honored on Worldwide Forgiveness Day. In 2011, both appeared with Oprah Winfrey to talk about their story — capping what may be one of the most poignant stories of forgiveness in American history.

Wilson died of heart failure on Thursday. He was 76.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.