Questions haunt man apologizing for racist past

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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.

Comments (25) Add comment
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Nammy3
0
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Nammy3 04/05/09 - 05:09 am
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And now, sir, it might be

And now, sir, it might be time to forgive yourself.

elliottness
2
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elliottness 04/05/09 - 06:42 am
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a hero? are you serious? he's

a hero? are you serious? he's fixing to die and wants to try to sneak into heaven.he could care less who gets there as long as he does.crawl back under your rock elwin,your fate was decided a long time ago,redneck.

Sir William
4
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Sir William 04/05/09 - 07:14 am
0
0
Hero may ba a little

Hero may ba a little strong.It is common for the elderly and sick to come to terms with their past. Only God and Mr Wilson know if his regrets are sincere. Change is slow but it is happening. Let's speed change by praying that Mr wilson is sincere and forgiving him. Or we can choose to perpetuate this ongoing cycle of hatred.

patriciathomas
43
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patriciathomas 04/05/09 - 07:50 am
0
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The media has turned the word

The media has turned the word "hero" into a meaningless word, using it to describe just about anything. Mr Wilson's actions, before and after his conversion, are just actions. Despicable before, maturing after. The article claims Mr Wilson was scared into repenting by fear for his everlasting soul. Since, he's developed a powerful guilt and shame for his previous actions and has tried to takes steps to apologize, not in general, but to specific individuals and groups he assaulted and insulted. What else can he do to try to make amends?

patriciathomas
43
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patriciathomas 04/05/09 - 07:51 am
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elliotness may be right, but

elliotness may be right, but I think he has hate issues of his own to overcome before his refusal to consider forgiveness has merit.

STONEWALLJ1
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STONEWALLJ1 04/05/09 - 08:07 am
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I will throw the BS flag on

I will throw the BS flag on this article!!!

getalife
6
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getalife 04/05/09 - 08:34 am
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I don't consider this man a

I don't consider this man a hero, someone just trying to right his wrongs before dying. Hopefully the black community there can forgive him. It may be more difficult forgiving himself for what he did.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/05/09 - 08:41 am
0
0
If the living ex mayor of

If the living ex mayor of Augusta Pop Lewis Newman could make right the wrong that he did to the Harrisburgs' Rollersville cemetery, Newman and the cemetery would be better off.There were many tombstones in the Rollersville Cemetery until Augusta Mayor Pop Lewis Newman had them removed and erected an "ego" monument in the cemetery. Perhaps Newman instructed the city employees who removed the stones to throw them in the canal. There are many more in the canal. Support www.hongkongaugustaga.org Newman is still living. He should at least pay to have the names of those who are burried in the Rollersville cemetery placed on markers and put them in the Rollersville cemetery. Lewis A Newman 2717 Walton Way Augusta, GA 30909-3823 (706) 733-5674

Bill
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Bill 04/05/09 - 09:07 am
0
0
It truly is a shame that it

It truly is a shame that it has taken all these years and the prospect of spending eternity in hell to make him sorry for what he has done. However, if this story of his apologies opens the eyes of others who are guilty of the same wrongdoing and causes them to repent, then it's worth the attention. Hero? Not even close. The Lord our God using this man's testimony to soften the hearts of haters, black and white, to further the healing... that's more likely.

Hoss4
0
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Hoss4 04/05/09 - 09:13 am
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elliottness, loves to come on

elliottness, loves to come on here every day and decide another's chances of getting into heaven. You may want to worry about your hate and whether your getting in before trying to play judge Elliottness.

Niko Mahs
83
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Niko Mahs 04/05/09 - 09:13 am
0
0
Another so called religious

Another so called religious christian who grew up with bad ideas and now is facing his mortality and is scared. Woo Hoo. Guess where you are going to end up buddy?

Hoss4
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Hoss4 04/05/09 - 09:16 am
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I truly believe what this guy

I truly believe what this guy did was despicable. But, would you rather the guy live the rest of his life hating blacks? We dont need to play God and decide what will happen to this man when he's gone. I think its better late than never.

Hoss4
0
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Hoss4 04/05/09 - 09:24 am
0
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Niko and Ness have powers to

Niko and Ness have powers to read other people's minds. Because the man is old and in bad health, he's not allowed to be sorry and in no way can he be forgiven. Hey Niko and Ness, could you please reference where in the bible it says, "Its too late for this man. He's not like the rest of us anymore. He's too old to be forgiven." I guess not everyone believes in forgiveness. I'm sure if this were a former racist black panther member asking for forgiveness, you two would be on here playing judge and jury, right?

WW1949
19
Points
WW1949 04/05/09 - 09:32 am
0
0
SArge, I went to see the so

SArge, I went to see the so called monument. Why do you constantly berate Mayor Newman and not the committee. Mr Newman was just the mayor at that time and the committee probably requested the action. If the people of Harrisburg are so concerned about Rollerville why don't they keep it clean, the grass cut and the hedges trimmed? Why don't you keep it clean since it bothers you so much?

Junket831
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Junket831 04/05/09 - 10:48 am
0
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I agree with PT's comments.

I agree with PT's comments. The bigger issue this article raised was Wilson's wondering where all the hate came from. It comes from deep within all of us. If left unchecked the hatred boils over and results in horrendous evil acts. Government, education and religious institutions play a key role in keeping the lid on our hatred. When these institutions fail to step in or in fact become the evil themselves, people get hurt in large numbers and society begins to crumble. This is the core of what is driving Americans crazy for the past several decades. They see our government and leading institutions failing to keep the balance. Whether it is our tax policy, our courts, schools, etc. the populace senses an unfairness to them. Whether it be a specific group or the population in general. If left unchecked for too long watch out. Peoples hatred for their neighbor or others who look different, act different, think differently will boil over.

Rose
17
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Rose 04/05/09 - 12:06 pm
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I saw this story on WJBF last

I saw this story on WJBF last night, and I believe this man is sincere. I don't think he is a hero, but if God has forgiven him, then I am glad he got things right with God. It is not our place to hate him for what he did, but we can hate the acts he did. Maybe this man can reach others and stop some from hating. Maybe others will listen to him.

pofwe
5
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pofwe 04/05/09 - 12:32 pm
0
0
elliottness, Matt. 18:22-35

elliottness, Matt. 18:22-35 ... So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.

BarstoolDreamer
19
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BarstoolDreamer 04/05/09 - 12:52 pm
0
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It is amazing how belief in a

It is amazing how belief in a magical man in the sky can make you pretend not to hate. If he truly was sorry he would have been so after his first attack....it is like the old saying the person that is not nice to the waiter is just not a nice a person.

JENASIX
0
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JENASIX 04/05/09 - 01:24 pm
0
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This white terrorists

This white terrorists confessed he committed a horrendous act toward a human being because the colored of his skin.How many blacks he murdered ? He need to tell that to the news media since his infirmities is taking a toil on his soul and flesh.

apex24
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apex24 04/05/09 - 04:23 pm
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Niko, you'll end up right

Niko, you'll end up right next to him!!!!

meshell
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meshell 04/05/09 - 05:57 pm
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There are many people who

There are many people who have made bad mistakes in life, who are we to judge anyone,if he is sincere than it is between he and the lord.

justus4
124
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justus4 04/05/09 - 07:37 pm
0
0
Hee, Hee, Ha! Ha! Another
Unpublished

Hee, Hee, Ha! Ha! Another loser, at the end of the road, lived a life of racial hatred and acted on that hate (never prosecuted, never went to jail, probably a closet killer, thus no justice here) If this guy thinks his strategy of confession is going to avoid his soul going to the hot place, he is sadly mistaken and so many others like him, who post comments in this section. This guy was a lifelong criminal and got no punishment for his acts. How can this be, in a country of laws? Easy. This guy's entire pitiful life proves that this country has failed to seek justice for minorities, but there happens to be a higher authority and His word is everlasting. Yep, ol' Elwin gonna need some ice, cause his life demostarate that heaven is a prepared place for prepared people. This man failed to prepare, through his stated violent acts, which earns him a place near Satan.

gnx
7
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gnx 04/05/09 - 10:04 pm
0
0
I can't say where this man

I can't say where this man will wind up as it's not my place to say so. It seems terribly convenient that he suddenly developed a conscience and, in his words, is afraid of going to hell. While I appreciate his attempt to come to grips with the atrocities he committed in the past and his quest to apologize to those he wronged, I question the true motive behind those actions.

SargentMidTown
8
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SargentMidTown 04/05/09 - 11:17 pm
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WW1949 Who's name is most

WW1949 Who's name is most prominent on the monument? Newman was the push for it. He is guilty of desicration. Do not talk about things that you don't know what you are talking about. I do. Before Newman dies he has the chance to make right his wrongs.

Riverman1
106868
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Riverman1 04/06/09 - 06:37 am
0
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The man didn't have to go

The man didn't have to go public. He could have made his peace with God and himself without telling the world. There is a reason he is doing it. It shows the wrongs that were done and may encourage others to make amends in some way.

reb007
1
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reb007 04/06/09 - 08:57 am
0
0
Blacks in Augusta are the

Blacks in Augusta are the most racist people in the country. Walk down there streets at night and see how you like it.

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