Two people made history four years ago.
Barack Obama – elected as America’s first black president – and Rock Hill’s Elwin Wilson, who was so moved by Obama’s inauguration that he apologized to all blacks for a lifetime of hatred.
Wilson’s apologies included one to U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the black man Wilson beat up in Rock Hill in 1961 when Wilson was a 21-year-old Freedom Rider.
Obama is running for re-election Tuesday. Pundits and pollsters are talking about whether he will get enough white votes to win. Many are speculating on whether race still matters in America.
They should ask the one guy who knows about whether race matters.
In all of America, Wilson – a former Ku Klux Klansman who beat up blacks for sport, once hung a black doll from a noose and tried to keep blacks from moving into his neighborhood – remains the only person in America to have apologized directly for these actions.
There is no doubt, Wilson says, that many in America still distrust and despise Obama simply because he is black. After four years with a black president, he says, America still has not cured its national cancer – racial hatred.
“One man can’t change people’s hearts,” Wilson says. “The person has to be willing to change, to admit they was wrong. I know, because I did it.”
Wilson’s apology after Obama’s inauguration came first to me at The Herald, because I had written so many times that blacks are people no different than anybody else. People who dream and love and achieve and, sometimes, fail.
Wilson apologized in person to local black segregation protesters he had jeered and thrown eggs at and punched in the early 1960s.
Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, was a Freedom Rider in 1961 when Wilson and others in Rock Hill beat him and a white Freedom Rider at the Rock Hill bus station. Those others who punched and kicked because of race have never had the guts to admit it.
Wilson and his apology, because it involved a congressman and civil rights legend, became a national spectacle. News organizations around the country jumped all over his story of redemption.
Wilson apologized on national television news shows, even on the Oprah Winfrey show. He was honored by national organizations. He was invited to California and Georgia and Washington, D.C., to speak about his change of heart.
This 76-year-old man told black and white, young and old, how a lifetime of hate was gone.
He apologized to that black family across the street he had tried to keep out decades before.
He became the American symbol for hate, redemption and forgiveness.
Judy Wilson, the great lady married to Elwin Wilson for 53 years come January, has never cared about race. A good person is a good person to Judy Wilson.
Many people cried and wrote to Wilson, told him he was great, after all the apologies and publicity. At a speech in California, people lined up for an hour to get his autograph.
In Washington – at the same Common Ground Foundation that has honored men such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu for promoting peace – Wilson was given a standing ovation.
One of those people was the Queen of Jordan. In the audience were senators and an ambassador.
Others who did not agree with apologizing for hating blacks, for trying to right wrongs, told him he was a turncoat. Some, of course, used racial slurs.
“One guy I went to high school with, he wrote me a letter to say how proud he was of me, and he died two days later,” Wilson said. “But one guy, I was selling some stuff through a newspaper ad, when he found out my name he said I was a traitor. Said I stood up for, that word that people use for black people. That word I used to use myself.
“I just wanted the world to change. I figured I could help change it.”
It is unclear how much the world has changed. Obama has been president for four years, and still there are people in this country who believe he is a Muslim, or was born in Africa.
Obama’s religion is questioned, his loyalty is questioned, his American-ness is questioned.
Sure some question his politics, but so many times, those who hate question whether Obama is a real American.
The only explanation is that Obama is black, and he is hated by so many for it.
Lewis’ speech two months ago at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte was the only speech at that political spectacle that brought a single emotion.
Those few words Lewis said, his eyes filled with tears, were about Elwin Wilson.
Some people cried when Lewis told the audience about getting beaten up in Rock Hill, just 20 miles down the road, and how one man alone apologized for his hatred of blacks and that beating so long ago. Lewis talked about how the country had changed on the issue of race.
Yet today, two days before the election, polls show Obama trails Mitt Romney among white voters by a huge margin. That does not mean those who prefer Romney like him because he is white. There are plenty of reasons to choose Romney over Obama.
The economy might be better than when Obama was elected, but it still stinks. Millions of people are still struggling. Those people are black, white, Latino, every color.
Obama has pushed through health care changes and more. There are plenty of legitimate political reasons for anybody to think Romney should be given a chance to try his way.
Obama’s record as president is part of the equation now for voters. Obama the black president is no longer new.
But his color is still part of Tuesday’s election.
“I have heard for the past four years about Obama, our president, from people all over the country,” said Wilson. “Some don’t like him because he is black.”
After Obama was elected in 2008, Wilson told me, “I didn’t vote for him, but I sure am proud of him. I hope he succeeds. I love him, I sure do.”
Wilson said this week he still loves the president and is proud of him.
“I learned how to judge a man by who he is and what he does, not by what he looks like,” Wilson said this week.
Yet Wilson also shows that race is not all that matters for white voters. He is still a conservative man, a religious man, and a self-made man. He is a natural Republican voter.
The election Tuesday, Wilson says, “seems like it’ll be close.”
Wilson, because he is 76, has the right to vote absentee in South Carolina. He already voted. So did his wonderful wife, Judy.
Elwin Wilson was asked who he voted for, for president. He said that vote, a secret ballot ensured in this great country, remains a secret.
“I voted for who I think is the best man for the job,” said Elwin Wilson. “In America, you should vote for the best man.”