Elwin Wilson, who spent his early years making life miserable for Blacks, could have gone to his grave with the truth about ugly actions of the 1960s. But, in a stunning admission following a lifetime of baggage, he fessed up about a brutal act that has haunted him for decades.
The former Klansman, who now lives in Rock Hill, S.C., says that he was the member of an angry White mob who in May 1961 attacked a group of students from a local Black college as they got off a bus to try and integrate a local dime store lunch counter.
“Well, at the time, it felt….I felt like somebody going to play golf and getting a hole in one,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “I'm ashamed to say that’s what I remember feeling. That's how good it felt.”
But that was then.
Last month, the 72-year-old Wilson read a story in the Rock Hill newspaper about the hatred the college students faced, and how they had been attacked. One of those beaten by Wilson and his gang was a young civil rights activist named John Lewis, now a Democratic U.S. congressman from Georgia. But it wasn’t Wilson’s only act of hatred.
“We used to catch Blacks late at night; we’d catch them walking down the sidewalks and throw cantaloupes at them,” he said. “Or, we’d get out the car and beat them, and it wouldn’t be four or five jumping on one. We’d make it one on one and the others would watch. … “There were many incidents of us stopping people. I’m not bragging about it. I’m ashamed of it. I wish I could take steps backwards but I’m taking steps forwards.”
Last week, Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C., to apologize to Lewis for the hate he displayed 48 years earlier. Wilson told the Tribune that his son “cried like a baby as the details started to come out this week” in Lewis’ office. “A friend said to me, ‘If you died right now, do you know where you’d go?’ I said, ‘To hell.’ I just had a lot on my shoulders and in my heart,” Wilson said. “I just wanted to get right with people. It took me years to know what I did was wrong.” Lewis told the Tribune, “He was very, very sincere, and I think it takes a lot of raw courage to be willing to come forward the way he did. ... I think it will lead to a great deal of healing."