Nearly 48 years after he was beaten by a white mob for trying to enter a whites-only waiting room at a Rock Hill bus depot, John Lewis — now a U.S. Congressman — has gotten an apology.
Elwin Wilson, a self-confessed former Klan member, traveled to Washington this week to expressed remorse to Lewis. The apology was aired on ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
“I am sorry for what happened down here,” Wilson said to Lewis.
“That’s OK, it’s alright,” Lewis responded. “It’s almost 48 years ago.
The two men shook hands and them embraced.
Lewis then asked Wilson if he remembered the day well.
“I tried to get it out of my mind,” Wilson answered.
Lewis, a 12-term congressman from Georgia, on May 9, 1961, was part of the Freedom Riders, a group of young civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the deep South to challenge segregated travel and waiting rooms.
Wilson, now 72, was part of a white Rock Hill mob that pummeled Lewis and others as they got off the bus and tried to enter a whites-only area inside the terminal. In fact, Wilson says, he was the tall white man described by Lewis as the person who hit him, splitting his lip.
On Tuesday, the two met again — this time in Lewis’ Washington, D.C., congressional office.
“I never thought that this would happen,” Lewis said. “It says something about the power of love. It says something about the power of grace. And it says something about the power of people to be able to say ‘I’m sorry.’ ”
Wilson said he has much in his past to regret.
He recalled once using a rope to hang a black doll from a tree in his yard. And when his parents died in the 1980s and were buried in a mixed-race cemetery, he recently told the Rock Hill Herald, he tried to get them moved.
Wilson said he began to break with his racist past after a deeply religious friend asked him if he knew where he’d go if he died that day.
“To hell,” Wilson recalled answering.
Wilson said he did not vote for President Obama but is glad he’s there. “I pray for him every day,” he said.