Andrew Dys

Rock Hill’s Elwin Wilson, Georgia congressman John Lewis showed racists can change

U.S. Rep. John Lewis talks with Elwin Wilson of Rock Hill in Lewis' Washington, D.C. office in 2009 before a television interview
U.S. Rep. John Lewis talks with Elwin Wilson of Rock Hill in Lewis' Washington, D.C. office in 2009 before a television interview aburriss@heraldonline.com

Like Dylann Roof, Elwin Wilson hated blacks. Unlike Dylan Roof, who police say confessed to killing nine blacks in a Charleston church, Elwin Wilson never killed anyone.

He hated and beat and punched and kicked and terrorized plenty of blacks under the false courage of the Confederate battle flag, though.

“He kept that flag here for all those years,” said his widow, Judy Wilson. “That is what he was for so long.”

One of those Wilson beat bloody in a lifetime of jack handles, fists, burning crosses and Confederate flags is a man named John Lewis. In 1961, Lewis was among a group known as the Freedom Riders who went to Rock Hill’s Greyhound bus station as part of their crusade to end segregation.

A preacher and a longtime congressman from Georgia, Lewis will be at the funeral for one of the Charleston victims on Friday.

Lewis, who has fought for civil rights all his life, forgave Elwin Wilson for that beating and Wilson’s lifetime of beatings and hate.

Just like the Charleston victims’ families somehow – with strength unknowable – have forgiven Roof.

Wilson remains the only person to apologize for beating up civil rights protesters, including members of Rock Hill’s Friendship Nine.

Unlike Roof, Wilson saw the light, and through The Herald apologized for his lifetime of hate in a story that spanned oceans. Wilson became an international figure for how racism can be undone through remorse, and the incredible forgiveness of the blacks he had beaten.

Wilson died two years ago, but not before the people he had beaten forgave him.

Roof’s hate-spurred massacre prompted a renewed push from previously cowardly politicians to finally take down the Confederate battle flag that flies on the Statehouse grounds. Those politicians have seen the light, and it burns red with blood.

Lifetime of hate

Elwin Wilson beat blacks. He punched and kicked them and threatened them and burned crosses on their yards. He hung a black doll from a tree in his yard when a black family dared move into his neighborhood. He did this from his teen years until he was an old man, for five decades.

He threatened blacks with guns from his porch, and he used ax handles to smash black skulls.

He threw watermelons and eggs on blacks and laughed as his buddies waved Confederate flags and booted blacks in the seats of their pants.

He was taught hate by the KKK and others who flew the Confederate flag. He himself used the Confederate flag to fuel his hate. He tried to poison his wife and son and grandsons with his hate, too.

“My one son, when he was young, he had a black friend and my father, he tormented him,” said Chris Wilson. “My father did that stuff for so long. It was part of him.”

But Wilson decided in 2009 that he wanted to apologize for his lifetime of hate, that he wanted to change. He admitted then that it was he who beat up Lewis in 1961. I notified Lewis, who immediately accepted the apology and said that racism and hate can be forgiven if the hater admits it and changes.

The two met days later in Washington, D.C., and hate died right there at the U.S. Capitol when they hugged.

That apology started right here in Rock Hill, with the apology of one man who adored and flew the same Confederate flag that flies in South Carolina still.

‘I forgive you, my friend.’

Chris Wilson, who had to look at that flag his whole life, called it “a good thing that the flag is coming down.”

But he believes the flag isn’t the problem. His great-great-grandfather died in a Union prison camp in Georgia during the Civil War, Chris Wilson said, but that is no reason to hate blacks, either.

The hate itself, the taught racism, was the Wilson way for so long, he said, and it is the hate and racism that must die.

Other members of Elwin Wilson’s family were not racists. Not his parents, wife, son, grandkids – just him.

Then he apologized and John Lewis said loudly for all the world to hear, “I forgive you, my friend.”

After the shootings last week, Lewis spoke of how troubled he was by mass murder in a church. Since then, he has said little, choosing to let South Carolina’s leaders try to handle the aftermath of the shootings and the renewed battle to take the flag of slavery and racism down.

But Lewis will go into that church Friday, alongside President Barack Obama, and he will be able to tell those gracious people who have forgiven Dylann Roof that he was the victim of a violent racist, and that the racist changed.

That hearts can mend. That hate cannot win.

Judy and Chris Wilson will watch the funerals on television from their Rock Hill home, and they will know that is true.

The hate of Dylann Roof cannot be changed, the deaths are done, but the hate of others is not.

Forgiveness is difficult. It is hard. But it is worth it.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

Lewis to attend funeral

U.S. Rep. John Lewis is expected to attend the funeral Friday for S.C. state Sen. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, a spokesperson for his office said.

Lewis posted this statement after the Charleston killings last week: “I grew up in the rural South. Every Wednesday night as a child we went to Bible study prayer meetings. I’ve been to Charleston many, many times. I have spoken in many of these churches, and this makes my heart hurt. I feel like crying.

How many more shootings must we endure? How many more human beings must be murdered before we speak up and speak out, before we say we must put an end to gun violence.

It is not just one person pulling the trigger, it is what’s in our environment, in our makeup, that drives someone to a point where they are willing to murder innocent people, of all places in the house of the Lord, studying the holy word, praying prayers of peace, love, and forgiveness.

If you cannot go to a church, or a mosque, or a temple, to study and pray, where can we turn as a nation and as a people?”

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