In this season of historic commemoration, it seems rather fitting that we should be observing the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War at the same time we observe the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides.
For those who may have forgotten, the Freedom Rides were a series of bus rides through the dark heart of Dixie, designed to test the Southern states’ compliance with U.S. Supreme Court decisions banning segregation in interstate bus travel. On May 4, 1961, the first group of 13 young civil rights activists — black and white — departed Washington, D.C., on their way to New Orleans. Along the way, some of them would be beaten, and one of their buses would be burned. But white violence against the peaceful riders put the national spotlight on the tragedy of segregation and the lawlessness by which Southern communities enforced it.
That first bus of Freedom Riders crossed into South Carolina on May 9, stopping at the Greyhound station in Rock Hill. The Piedmont town was already on edge. Four months earlier, it had found itself in the national spotlight when a group of nine black students from nearby Friendship College sat down at two whites-only lunch counters on Main Street. The nine were assailed by howling whites and hauled off to jail.
Now another group of young blacks was stepping off the bus and heading into the depot. The segregated waiting rooms were clearly marked, but one 21-year-old seminary student headed strait toward the white facility, as several white thugs waited. Two of them approached the young seminarian.
That young man was John Lewis, who went on to gain greater fame in the Civil Rights Movement and has served as a congressman from Georgia for 25 years. In his 1998 memoir, Lewis described what happened next that day:
“‘Other side, nigger,’ one of them said, stepping in my way as I began to walk through the door. He pointed to a door down the way with a sign that said ‘COLORED.’ … 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.”
Since April 2009, we have also known the name of the white man who delivered the beating: Elwin Hope Wilson. The 72-year-old Wilson wanted to get some things off his chest after a lifetime of baiting, beating, and humiliating African Americans. When someone showed him a copy of Lewis’ book with the account of the beating at the bus station, he recognized himself, and he knew what he had to do.
Starting first with local media, Wilson started coming clean, making his apologies — not just to John Lewis but to all the African Americans he had hurt in a lifetime of hate, including the neighbors who lived across the street from him in Rock Hill, the neighbors he had harassed and threatened and carried on a war of nerves against for 30 years.
Wilson’s story went national. Lewis invited him to Washington, where the two met again for the first time in nearly 50 years. Wilson delivered his apology once more — face-to-face. Lewis accepted. It was a tearful reunion for both men.
Since that meeting, the two have appeared together at civil rights events in Maryland, California, and Georgia. They met in Washington to receive the Common Ground Award, given annually to people who promote peace and reconciliation.
Two weeks ago, Oprah Winfrey invited Lewis and 177 other Freedom Riders on her show to commemorate their famous rides. Lewis suggested that Wilson also be invited to appear with the group. Winfrey agreed, and Wilson accepted.
On the show, which aired May 5, Wilson said he was moved by what happened immediately after the beating in the bus station. When a police officer asked Lewis if he wished to press charges, he declined.
“The thought, it [had] come in my mind so many times,” Wilson said. “What he said, he wasn’t out to harm nobody.”
On the same episode of Oprah, Lewis said, “He’s the first and only person who has ever apologized to me.”
There are no Confederates left to apologize for the war they made against the United States in defense of slavery, but there are plenty of neo-Confederates who like to talk tough and pretend their granddaddies were freedom fighters and cavaliers. A bunch of them strutted around and shot off their cannons in Magnolia Cemetery last week, marking Confederate Memorial Day. They could take a lesson from Elwin Wilson: An apology can be good for the soul.