Note: This story was first published in January, 2009
Almost 48 years have passed since a mob of white men beat up two civil rights demonstrators at Rock Hill’s Greyhound bus station. Called “Freedom Riders,” one white man and one black man protesting segregated transportation tried to both go into a waiting room that on May 9,1961, was for “whites” only.
When asked Monday night if any of the people who beat him in 1961 in Rock Hill, or attacked the Freedom Ride bus days later in Alabama, ever apologized before, U.S. Rep John Lewis, D-Ga. said, “Never. Until now.” One of the Rock Hill mob has now apologized.
Lewis said Monday that man is forgiven.
In a telephone interview Monday night from his office in Washington, D.C., Lewis said he read about the apology of Elwin Wilson for past acts of hate published Saturday in The Herald. “I accept that apology, and would love to have the opportunity some day to talk to that man if he wants to,” Lewis said. “I have no ill feelings. No malice. This shows the distance we have come. It shows grace on his part. It shows courage.”
Last year Lewis received an apology from the current mayor of Rock Hill. But Wilson is the first to admit a role in the Rock Hill beatings.
Wilson, now 72, told Rock Hill black civil rights protesters Friday he apologized for heckling and taunting them in January 1961. Wilson also told the local protesters, known as the “Friendship Nine” and the “City Girls,” that he was one of that mob that beat up Lewis a few months later. Wilson said he was sorry.
All those Rock Hill people forgave Wilson — and now Lewis, has, too.
In 1961 Lewis was a 21-year-old seminary student. Both he and Al Bigelow, the white protester, were thumped with clouts to the head.
“The two of us got off the bus,” Lewis said. “We tried to go into the ‘white’ waiting room. And a group of young men attacked us. They left us lying in blood.”
Lewis and Bigelow declined to press charges.
“We said no, that was not why we were doing it,” Lewis said Monday.
The Freedom Rides through the South in May 1961 started days earlier in Washington, D.C., with stops through Virginia and North Carolina. A small item in “The Evening Herald” of May 9 told the Rock Hill community to expect the riders that day, too.
Elwin Wilson said Monday his father ran a service station on Main Street near the Greyhound bus station where the beatings took place. Wilson said, “the word had gotten out” among racist whites that the riders were coming to Rock Hill. But Wilson said he couldn’t remember who the other men were that came with him to the station who participated in the beating.
The Evening Herald ran a short story the day after the beatings, stating a “Negro” and a white man told police both were hit by a group of 10 white people waiting for their arrival. The headline? “Bi-racial tourists tell of scuffle at bus station.”
John Lewis was no tourist. And the nation soon noticed as the Rock Hill incident received national attention in the press. Subsequent attacks against the riders in Alabama were seen nationwide. Segregation was seen by all for its hatred, and in just a few years legal segregation would be dead.
Lewis said Monday he is “deeply touched,” by Wilson’s apology for that awful day 48 years ago.
“This apology now is the essence of what the (civil rights) movement was all about, the ability of people to change and grow,” Lewis said Monday.
Wilson said last week he hoped blacks could forgive all the hatred of his life, including the Lewis beating. That happened Monday.
“This is one of the best things I have ever done,” Wilson said of apologizing. “I am sorry. I’m just now trying to do what’s right.”