'I need to tell some people I am sorry'

adys@heraldonline.comJanuary 24, 2009 

Note: This story was first published in January, 2009

A pair of voices on the other end of my phone Wednesday afternoon started out soft and became roars. Not roars of hate, but roars of change.

Because two men who found courage somewhere in their hearts that for so long sagged with hate wanted to apologize to so many black men and women who have never hated anybody, there is now a little less hate in the world.

These two people who hated blacks for so long -- Elwin Wilson and Steve Coleman -- called me because they wanted to apologize for all their hatred. They called me because I wrote about the hate those blacks endured without hating back.

I wrote about those proud blacks again in Wednesday's special inauguration edition of The Herald, when Barack Obama became America's first black president. The column Wednesday was about the women who protested in 1960 and 1961, who risked injury and death, over segregated lunch counters and a segregated world.

These two white men, reading and looking at Andy Burriss' picture of these proud black women now in their 60s, wanted to bare their souls. They wanted everybody to know how wrong they were for so long.

And the men and women who were hated, they took the lead and said each would love to meet these men and forgive them in person for what they had already forgiven way back in 1961.

When the two men each said they would tell me their story for the newspaper, I asked each if they would rather do it for themselves. Both agreed. I called David Williamson, one of the Friendship Nine.

"I never hated anybody then and I don't now," Williamson said Thursday. "I want to meet them. I'll call everybody. I'll make it happen."

And it did.

Elwin Wilson

The first voice on the other end of the telephone Wednesday said to me, "My name is Elwin Wilson, and I need to tell some people I am sorry."

Wilson, 72, went on.

"Remember that picture that ran in The Herald so long ago, where the black fella got hit with the egg? Well, I threw that egg. I'm right there in the picture, wearing a football jersey."

I asked Wilson if I could come over and interview him and bring a copy of that picture and he said, "Come on. I need to do this."

Sure enough, Wilson sat in a chair in his house and looked at the picture and said, "That's me." There was Elwin Wilson 49 years ago, in 1960, smirking in the background as a black man wipes egg off his hat. The man and so many others -- mostly blacks but a few gutsy whites, too -- wanted blacks and whites to be equal.

Wilson and so many others were having none of that.

Some people play golf, Wilson said, "What I did was hate blacks."

But Elwin Wilson did a lot more than throw one egg at one black man.

For years, he said, he was in the Ku Klux Klan. He marched against integration and went to rallies that beat hatred into the air along with ash from burning crosses. He threw cantaloupes and watermelons at blacks and beat up blacks who dared to be seen where he was. He called blacks every name in the book.

"One night I had (a black man) beat bad, then I saw he was puttin' his hat back on and I knew he was all right," Wilson said. "So I said, 'I got to go back.'"

Wilson beat that black man again. "I've done some bad things," Wilson said. "I thought it was cool."

One time, he said, he saw a black man take change from the drink machine at Wilson's father's service station on Main Street.

"I took a jackhandle and I run him down Main Street, and I didn't get to hit him but once."

When a real estate agent decades ago tried to sell a neighboring house to a black man, Wilson called a neighborhood meeting where he demanded blacks be kept out. When rebuffed, he tried to beat up the guy who was going to sell the house.

He had a black lawn ornament on his property for at least 15 years. When somebody took it one time, "I took a black baby doll, and I put a rope around its neck, and I hung it from a limb in the big oak tree in my front yard."

Only the police telling him he would have protesters at his home caused Wilson to shelve his hate and take down the black doll in the noose.

It took years before he shook the hand of a black neighbor he had offended that day.

Years ago, Wilson's grandson would talk to his best friend, a black kid, on the phone, and Wilson would scream out to get off the phone with that so-and-so. So-and-so is the N-word.

That N-word.

"I used it every day," Wilson said. "Whites who took up for them, I called them that, too. I hated blacks. Hated 'em."

On May 9, 1961, Wilson said he was one of the white men who beat up a black man and a white man, called Freedom Riders, who came to Rock Hill on a bus to protest segregation in the South. That black man is now U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

I asked Wilson what he used to beat those men on the bus, and he said, "My fists. I sure remember I didn't shake hands."

And then there was Jan. 31, 1961. While black ladies protested the segregated McCrory's lunch counter outside, 10 black men sat on stools inside. One big tall white guy grabbed the nearest guy to him under the black man's arms and attempted to drag him off the stool.

"I got under his arms and picked him up," said Wilson, a big guy then and a big guy now.

Only a policeman telling Wilson he would get locked up kept Wilson from dragging that black man into the street.

Wilson was later one of the few whites to attend Friendship Junior College -- the same college the protesters went to earlier -- before it closed down. He "blocked it outta my mind" that he was surrounded by so many blacks.

Wilson's father wasn't a bigot, he said. His family sure isn't.

But when First Baptist Church integrated many years ago, Elwin Wilson left the church and told his family they had to come, too, and he never went back.

Just Elwin Wilson, a pipe welder, alone in his hate.

But a few months ago Wilson took up an offer from a black man he had known since childhood, a man of whom Wilson said, "For some reason I always thought of him as equal to me."

Wilson went to Hermon Presbyterian Church, filled with blacks, and what he found is people loved him even with his life of hate. "I found peace there in that church."

His life started to change. The hate started to seep away. The election of a black president came. And then on Tuesday, Wilson spent the whole day in front of the television watching Barack Obama get inaugurated.

"I saw people come together, all these people and I knew that I had done wrong," Wilson said. "I got close to Obama. I didn't vote for him, but I felt like I wanted to go up there and work for him and get a job and be around that family."

So Wednesday, after he read my column about the ladies who marched alongside the Friendship Nine, Wilson called me and said those words: "My name is Elwin Wilson, and I need to tell some people I am sorry."

Wilson said some people who know him and his life of hate won't believe him, and he will lose some friends over this if those people do believe it.

"But they are not my kind of friends," Wilson said. "I thank God he let me stay here long enough to get this out of me."

Steve Coleman

The second call Wednesday, not a half-hour after Wilson's call, came from a man who started out by saying he was looking at his Wednesday edition of The Herald. The big picture on the front of the Local/State section, and my column to go with it, of two ladies who had marched with the Friendship Nine.

"I remember those faces," began the man. "I was there that day. I was 17. I skipped school just so I could go there and taunt those black people. I was raised to hate them. So I did."

He paused and was silent for seconds that stretched. Finally he said, "And I am so ashamed."

The man identified himself as Steve Coleman. The same Steve Coleman who retired many years ago after 33 years as a Rock Hill police officer. He wasn't taught to hate by his family. He learned it from others.

But those faces in the paper Wednesday would not go way from Coleman. He was at the protest and sit-in Jan. 31, 1961, yelling and hating.

"I remember all the faces. I remember all the marching. I remember they had a look of determination, not hate," Coleman said. "But we had plenty of hate. That crowd I was in, they hated. They were violent."

Nine men went to jail for 30 days for the crime of being black and wanting to eat where whites did. Coleman went in the military, then came home and joined the police force.

Not long after, an officer took Coleman under his wing. That officer, Bill Singleton, one of a few blacks on the force then, became Rock Hill's first black detective.

Then in November 1968, on a domestic dispute call, Singleton took a bullet to the temple. Coleman was dispatched to bring Singleton's family to the hospital.

Coleman stayed on the force, kept his problems with blacks bottled up even as he worked with black officers. He raised a family. His daughter, one of three children, joined the military and left home. Years later she told her father she secretly had gotten married to a black man.

"I didn't talk to my daughter again for years," he said. "I had seen those bi-racial couples when I was working, especially when the girl was white, and I just couldn't bear to think what she would go through."

His hatred would now be directed toward his own family.

Because Coleman's late mother wasn't prejudiced, his daughter would call her. One day when Coleman was visiting his mother, the phone rang. Coleman picked it up. It was his daughter.

"She hung up on me." He waited and the daughter called back. He asked his daughter for forgiveness that day. And then soon afterward, he met his son-in-law -- a police officer, of all things, in California -- and then he received the gift that changed Coleman's heart for good.

"Grandsons, two of them, and sure enough doesn't one of them even look like me!" Coleman said.

Above Coleman's bed for years has been a picture of Steve Jordan, a police officer killed in the line of duty in 1975. And for years, too, has been a picture of Bill Singleton. A black face right above Coleman's head and heart.

Only at a memorial service for the families of the slain officers a couple of years ago was Coleman able to tell Singleton's family how he felt about Bill Singleton, and how sorry he was.

"I loved that old black man," Coleman recalled. "I still do. I just didn't know it for so long."

Coleman can't take back those hateful words from his past. Elwin Wilson can't take back words or deeds, either. But both on Friday told two members of the Friendship Nine, and three of the black women who marched with them, what they told me.

They had the guts to do it. The black men and women used even more courage to accept.

Both Elwin Wilson and Steve Coleman said they shouldn't have done what they did.

Because, in each man's own words, "It was wrong."