Questions haunt man apologizing for racist past

ROCK HILL, S.C. --- Elwin Hope Wilson sits in his home, a sad, sickly man haunted by time.

He doesn't have answers for much of how he has lived his life -- not for all the black people he beat up, not for all the time wasted in hate.

Now 72 and ailing, his body swollen by diabetes, Mr. Wilson is spending as many hours pondering his past as he is his mortality.

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for once hurling a jack handle at a black child, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961.

Mr. Wilson has spent recent months apologizing to "the people I had trouble with." He has embraced black men his own age, at the same lunch counter where once they were denied service and hauled off to jail.

He has carried his apology into black churches where he has unburdened it in prayer.

And he has taken it to Washington, to the office of U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, the civil rights leader whose face Mr. Wilson smashed at the Greyhound bus station during the famed Freedom Rides 48 years ago.

The apologies have won headlines and praise. Strangers, black and white, have hailed him as a hero. But Mr. Wilson feels confused. He can't fully answer the lingering questions, the doubts. Where did all the hate come from? And where did it go?

"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years," he said. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."

Mr. Wilson's 49-year-old son, Chris, describes his deep embarrassment growing up with a father who would holler at blacks in restaurants, sneer at them in public and brazenly use the N-word in front of Chris' teen friends.

Mr. Wilson seems unsure where his racism originated. It wasn't inherited, he says. He was an only child; his parents treated everyone equally, though he says his father, a gas station owner, once told him that his grandfather and grandfather's brothers had been involved with the Klan.

"I guess it was just the crowd I ran with," Mr. Wilson said with a shrug. "It was sport."

Sport was marching down Main Street behind hooded KKK members and taunting young black students who walked silently to segregated lunch counters only to get arrested by police.

Sport was laying in wait for a certain bus to pull into the Greyhound depot May 9, 1961. Freedom Riders, they were called, black and white students traveling through the South, testing the new desegregation laws at bus station restaurants and restrooms.

In his autobiography, Mr. Lewis described what happened: "The next thing I knew, a fist smashed the right side of my head. Then another hit me square in the face. As I fell to the floor I could feel feet kicking me hard in the sides. I could taste blood in my mouth."

For years Mr. Wilson didn't know the identity of the man he had beaten, though he says that over time, guilt began weighing heavy on his heart.

He learned of Mr. Lewis' identity in January as he apologized to nine men from Friendship Junior College in the Rock Hill restaurant where they had been denied service and arrested in 1961. His apology was facilitated by the local paper, The Herald, which Mr. Wilson called after reading an article about the Friendship Nine.

Not all agreed to meet with him. Privately, some questioned his motives, his timing, his sincerity.

David Williamson, one of the nine, had no qualms. He understands a man wanting to put his affairs in order before meeting his maker.

"I think it is a testament to how the world has changed and how hearts have changed," he said.

Mr. Wilson says he gave up drinking in 1976. He is less sure when he gave up hating blacks.

"By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them," he said.

That was in the 1970s when he was in his late 30s. He had drifted through different jobs -- construction foreman, welder, millwright. He had joined the Air Force, where he began associating with blacks as equals for the first time. And he had returned to Rock Hill, where he enrolled in Friendship Junior College under the GI bill.

He saw no irony in the fact that the college was black. It was convenient. And times had changed.

However, Mr. Wilson hadn't changed that much.

In the 1980s, when the local cemetery began burying blacks alongside whites, he became so incensed he threatened to disinter the bodies of his parents. When a black family bought a house in the neighborhood around the same time, Mr. Wilson accosted the real estate agent and demanded the sale be rescinded.

He yelled racial insults whenever his grandson, Christopher, talked on the phone to his black wrestling buddy. When a garden ornament -- a stone statue of a black boy in a straw hat -- was vandalized in Mr. Wilson's front yard, he strung up a black doll with a noose around its neck, then threatened to use an AK-47 against a neighbor who complained.

Mr. Wilson says he is ashamed of his behavior. He has apologized to his grandson and to the neighbor. Still, he worried that wasn't enough.

"I'm going to hell," he told friend Clarence Bradley one day in January at his auto paint and body shop. "If you truly ask forgiveness and you mean it in your heart, you can be saved," said Mr. Bradley, 62.

They talked about it some more. Another friend, a part-time preacher, walked in and the men prayed together.

"Only God and Elwin know what's in his heart," Mr. Bradley said. "But I can tell you something in that man changed that day."

Mr. Wilson says he felt it too, a sense of peace that he was no longer doomed.

A week later, Mr. Wilson saw the newspaper article about the Friendship Nine as they watched the inauguration of the nation's first black president. He knew exactly what to do.

NAILED TO ONE WALL in Mr. Wilson's two-car garage is the "colored" sign that once hung over the restroom in the bus station. He says he keeps it "to remind me what I did wrong."

In his living room is another reminder, a 1961 newspaper photo that shows a black man wiping egg off his hat, surrounded by sneering white youths.

"That was me," Mr. Wilson said.

He leafs through some of the recent letters that have poured in and starts reading them aloud.

"When I read about your courageous apology, I was moved to tears," wrote a woman from North Carolina. "Your action ... is now a blessing for others."

Mr. Wilson never imagined one man's apology could trigger so much interest. He has been asked to attend several events with Mr. Lewis, including one in Selma, Ala., but he isn't sure whether he will go. He is feeling worn out by all the demands.