Andrew Dys

Rock Hill Mayor Echols’ legacy is courage to fight against racism, for equality

In this 2008 photo, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, right, embraces U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. at the fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in Rock Hill.
In this 2008 photo, Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols, right, embraces U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. at the fifth annual Martin Luther King Jr. Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in Rock Hill. rh herald

Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols will be remembered for bicycle tracks and parks and economic development. But his legacy is far larger.

Doug Echols publicly hated racism. And he had the guts to say so.

His courage in fighting bigotry, the Confederate flag, hatred, will live on in the city he adopted as home 47 years ago.

In 2008, U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia was coming to Rock Hill to speak at the city’s Martin Luther King breakfast. Lewis was a Freedom Rider in 1961, and when the bus stopped in Rock Hill, Lewis and another rider, a white man named Al Bigelow, were beaten by an angry mob.

Many people, including me, wanted to apologize to Lewis for that hate, but Echols beat us to the punch. He apologized at the Rock Hill breakfast before more than a thousand people, saying that is not Rock Hill.

Lewis cried. He called Echols his brother.

The night before, Echols had escorted Lewis to the lunch counter where the Friendship Nine civil rights protesters were arrested and later jailed in 1961. Lewis wanted to see and feel it.

Lewis cried on his stool. Echols did, too.

Lewis had a soft drink. He reached to pay. Echols stopped Lewis.

“Congressman, your money is no good in Rock Hill,” said Echols, who paid the bill.

Doug Echols, who announced this week that he will not seek reelection when his term ends in October, always paid the bill when it came to race and equality.

After 20 years as mayor and two terms as a Rock Hill City Council member, Doug Echols said Tuesday he will not run for re-election this fall. The Herald asked him whether he will pursue public office again, what his plans are, and what he believes

Echols started out in 1970, as Northwestern High School’s football coach and athletic director, when the school was new.

One other thing was new. Northwestern was integrated, and it had a black principal, Sam Foster. Those who despised integration put graffiti on windows, hung rebel flags at school and posted banners with awful words.

Foster, later a legendary S.C. General Assembly member, hired Echols to help teach kids about reading, writing, arithmetic, sports and more, including life and equality. Foster, and Echols, allowed no bigotry. They led by example and changed a city.

“Doug Echols was a young man with great character all those years ago, and he kept that character his whole life,” Foster said.

“Young people learn by example, and Doug Echols was an example to all those students,” Foster said. “This city was fortunate to have him as mayor for so long. A fine, fine man.”

Echols was one of the Rock Hill City Council members who voted almost three decades ago to build Cherry Park. The vote was so unpopular it cost Echols his council seat.

He later became mayor, and the park remains a jewel of the city.

Under Echols’ guidance, Rock Hill adopted a slogan: “No Room For Racism.”

The city honored the Friendship Nine civil rights protesters, and the unsung heroes of equality for past decades. Echols led the way.

He pushed for the city to honor a long-gone black business district with its Freedom Walkway downtown, and other tributes to try and right a past of racial wrongs.

Echols spoke out last month against allowing the Confederate flag at the York County Courthouse, or at a convention in Rock Hill, calling it a “negative symbol.”

In the twilight of his political life, Echols said Rock Hill must embrace inclusiveness.

And when a former racist recanted a life of hate and apologized, Doug Echols was there, too.

Elwin Wilson was the man who beat up John Lewis in 1961. He apologized in 2009 in an exclusive to The Herald that later became an international story of forgiveness.

Wilson died four years ago this week, and Echols went to the burial, along with a few family members. He did not have to go, but Echols is mayor of a city where Wilson had changed part of the cancer of America that is racism, and the city had healed with it.

On that day, and on many other days, Echols was an example of leadership, a symbol of a city that saw its wrongs and had the guts to say: “Together, let’s make it right.”

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