7:49 AM PDT, April 2, 2013
Elwin Wilson, the former Ku Klux Klan supporter who publicly apologized for years of violent racism, including the beating of a black Freedom Rider who went on to become a Georgia congressman, has died. He was 76.
Wilson died Thursday at a hospital in South Carolina after a bout with the flu and suffering for years with heart and lung problems, said his wife, Judy.
She said that her husband was relieved he lived long enough to try to make amends for years of racial hatred. He detailed his deeds at length when he called the Herald newspaper of Rock Hill, S.C., to apologize shortly after President Obama's inauguration in 2009.
"He said he had it on his heart for a long time," Judy Wilson said. "He said he wished he could find the ones he mistreated and apologize to them all."
Among his actions were cross burnings; hanging a black doll in a noose from a tree in his front yard; flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street; hurling a jack handle at a black youth jiggling the soda machine in his father's service station; and the brutal beating of future U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia at a Rock Hill bus station in 1961.
After his apology to the newspaper, Wilson apologized in several other public venues, including during a meeting with Lewis at the congressman's Capitol Hill office. In 2011, Wilson and Lewis told their story to TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
In a 2009 interview, Wilson tried to explain why he had decided to apologize.
"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I've done," Wilson said. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."
This month, Lewis received apologies from the current police chief of Montgomery, Ala., and the governor. But Wilson's apology remains special.
"He was the first private citizen," Lewis said. "He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me. For a private citizen to come along and say, 'I'm the one that attacked you; I'm the one who beat you,' it was very meaningful."
Elwin Hope Wilson was born in Gaston County, N.C., on Sept. 17, 1936, and served in the Air Force.
Besides his wife, he is survived by a son, two grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.