Feature

Elwin Wilson, 1936–2013

The Klansman who apologized to his victims

As a young Southerner dead set against racial integration, Elwin Wilson joined the Ku Klux Klan to take violent action. When black Freedom Rider John Lewis tried to enter the “whites only” waiting room at the bus station in Rock Hill, S.C., in 1961, Wilson and fellow racists beat him bloody. But that memory haunted him. So half a century later, after Lewis had become a prominent member of the U.S. Congress, Wilson went to his office to personally apologize. “My daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind and a smart man changes his mind,” he said. 

Born in Gaston County, N.C., Wilson served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, said CNN.com. Once back home, he waged war against black people, discouraging them from moving into his neighborhood by burning crosses, throwing cantaloupes at them on Main Street, and hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his driveway. But even his wife, Judy, didn’t know the details of his violent past until she walked into their house in 2009 to find Wilson, then 72, revealing it all to a local newspaper columnist. 

By owning up, Wilson became “a national symbol for reconciliation and redemption,” said the Rock Hill Herald. He appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Lewis, who forgave him and still often tells the story of Wilson’s change of heart. “All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I’ve done,” Wilson said, when asked why he decided to renounce his racial hatred. “And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks.”

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