More than 40 years after John Lewis, once a Freedom Rider from Alabama, was beat up in a Rock Hill bus terminal, Mayor Doug Echols publicly apologized to the Georgia congressman.
Echols told a crowd of about 700 people at the city's fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Prayer Breakfast on Monday that Rock Hill has changed since the 1960s and will continue to change for the better.
In an accent not as twangy as you might expect from a Southerner, Lewis -- a Democrat who has represented Atlanta in the House of Representatives for more than 20 years -- accepted the mayor's apology.
"You didn't have to say anything, but you did, and I am grateful," said Lewis, the speaker during the breakfast honoring the slain civil rights leader. "Thank you, my friend; thank you, my brother."
'I could taste blood'
In 1961, Lewis was one of many Freedom Riders who traveled across the nation to challenge segregation. Riders stopped in different towns, cities and states to test whether transportation agencies were following desegregation laws.
At the time, he was a 21-year-old seminary student and an activist with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a group fighting for civil rights nationally.
In his book, "Walking with the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement," Lewis wrote that he knew he was in trouble the second he stepped off the bus in Rock Hill.
After trying to enter the white waiting room in the Greyhound terminal, Lewis described being assaulted by a group of white men.
"The next thing I knew, a fist smashed the right side of my head," he wrote. "Then another hit me square in the face. As I fell to the floor I could feel feet kicking me hard in the sides. I could taste blood in my mouth."
Rock Hill was the first of many places Lewis would be subjected to violence, but he never put up a fight. Nonviolence was part of the plan to fight the system of segregation, he said.
The Rock Hill incident drew national media attention.
"As a community, we can not erase that moment from our history, in the same way that Congressman Lewis cannot erase it from his memory," Echols said. "But by remembering it and then continuing to take action on the journey of racial justice, we will be following one of the insights of Martin Luther King, who said, 'If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values -- that all reality hinges on a moral foundation and that all reality has spiritual control.'"
'A step toward reconciliation'
After the breakfast, Lewis said he did not know Echols planned to apologize and that he fought the urge to cry on stage.
"I almost lost my cool," he said.
Lewis, who was given a key to the city in 2002, said he holds no grudges. Forgiveness, he said, has a cleansing effect.
"It was in keeping with the spirit of the movement," he said. "It's in keeping with our faith to be able to forgive. It's a step toward reconciliation. It's a step toward the building of community."
Local leaders said they were glad to see a diverse community gather on Monday to celebrate King's legacy. Whites sat with blacks, and the young sat with the old.
"I feel like it's the one time in the year that the community really seems to come together," said Janice Welch, who has attended the breakfast each year since its inception.
Welch said she would pray for continued growth of the community.
Monday's breakfast was hosted by the Rock Hill/York County MLK Task Force, Rock Hill's Committee on Human Relations and the No Room for Racism Committee.
State Rep. Bessie Moody-Lawrence, D-Rock Hill, was honored with the Dream Keeper Award. Moody-Lawrence was noticeably moved by the award and by Lewis' speech.
"Let us remember," she said. "Let us act and let us continue to be the loving community that we are."