U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., magnanimously accepted Rock Hill Mayor Doug Echols' apology last week for the way in which the congressman, then a college student, was received at the bus terminal in our fair city 47 years ago.
How much more meaningful it would have been if the apology had come from the yahoos who beat up Lewis and a white compatriot on that day in 1961.
Perpetrators of violence against Freedom Riders have faded into obscurity. How their hearts have changed or whether they even remember their role in such infamous incidents of Southern inhospitality, only they can say.
Echols' apology, greeted with a standing ovation during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast, wasn't the first time a local elected official apologized for this community's rude treatment of civil rights activists. Last year, Buddy Motz, chairman of York County Council, made a similar mea culpa during the unveiling of a historical marker honoring the Friendship Nine.
Motz was a teenager when students from Friendship College were arrested following sit-in demonstrations at downtown lunch counters. He told surviving members of the Friendship Nine, the young men who chose to spend 30 days in the county jail rather than accept bail, that his parents wouldn't let him go downtown during those tense days in 1961.
Organizers of the event made sure the honorees were treated to a breakfast feast, served at the very lunch counter where they had been busted nearly half a century ago. The Downtown Bistro, the new eatery occupying part of what had been the McCrory's five and dime, had engraved names of the local civil rights heroes on the backs of the stools.
For most of the intervening history, however, neither the Friendship Nine nor anyone else could have dined there; McCrory's, like the Woolworth's next door, had been closed for years.
Likewise, John Lewis should be glad he didn't have to catch the Greyhound to visit Rock Hill last week; the bus terminal these days is a coin-operated laundry on north Cherry Road, miles from downtown.
Ironically, Rock Hill blacks gained the right to sit at the front of the bus about the time our only means of public transit folded. Similarly, segregated water fountains and restrooms disappeared from downtown stores not many years before the stores were shuttered and replaced by suburban stores, situated far from where most African-Americans lived.
A parallel Pyrrhic victory occurred in the textile industry. For 100 years the only mill jobs open to blacks were menial; less than a generation after better jobs began to be available to them, the industry was shipped to Asia.
Gestures of remorse for past injustices are both welcome and overdue, but they are no substitute for meaningful change.
Initiatives helped poor
To their credit, Echols and Motz represent public bodies that have tried to help lower-income minority citizens. Rock Hill has launched a number of initiatives to improve poor inner-city neighborhoods, and York County can take pride in such projects as bringing water and sewer to Blackmon Road and building sidewalks linking black residential areas to South Pointe High School.
On the other hand, we have a governor who would score points by removing a statue of a racist former governor from the Statehouse grounds but who also wants to cut health insurance for children and funnel tax revenues to private schools.
We pride ourselves on breaking bread once a year at the multiracial breakfast honoring Dr. King but fail to wonder what the civil rights icon might be doing today had he not fallen to an assassin's bullet 40 years ago. At the time, King had lost favor with President Johnson by opposing the war in Vietnam and had come to Memphis, Tenn., where he was murdered, in support of a strike by garbage workers.
If he were alive, it's likely King would be leading demonstrations against the U.S. effort in Iraq and picketing Wal-Mart for buying its merchandise in China and not taking better care of its workers.
Like Rep. Lewis, he would have been grateful for the apology but would have reminded us of what remains to be done.