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Rock Hill man who apologized for racist past dies

By Jonathan McFadden
jmcfadden@heraldonline.com

Elwin Wilson, the Rock Hill man who made national headlines with his apology for his bigotry against blacks years ago, died Thursday of heart failure at Piedmont Medical Center. He was 76.

After President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Wilson, an admitted former member of the Ku Klux Klan, phoned The Herald, saying he felt he needed to apologize for his past.

That past included beating the 21-year-old John Lewis, who as a member of the Freedom Riders, a civil rights group opposing segregation, walked into a whites-only waiting room at a Greyhound bus station in Rock Hill in 1961. Wilson said he was one of several men who attacked Lewis, leaving him with bruises and a split lip.

In 2009, Lewis, now a congressman representing Georgia’s 5th District, and Wilson met in Washington, D.C., where Wilson admitted what he had done and apologized.

He also apologized to members of the Friendship Nine, nine young black men who were incarcerated for 30 days after they refused to leave McCrory’s lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill in 1961.

In 1960, while wearing a football jersey and surrounded by a cheering crowd of other white people, Wilson, tossed an egg at a black man, who wiped the shell and yolk from his hat while police officers stood guard on West Main Street.

A few years later, he hung a black doll from a tree.

Wilson also admitted to conspiring to buy a house so the Andersons, a black family, could not move into his neighborhood near Eden Terrace.

Wilson “didn’t realize you can’t keep a neighborhood one color,” Helena Anderson said Saturday from her Tillman Street home, where she and her family have lived across the street from Wilson for 35 years.

Once coming forward with his apology, Wilson became a national symbol of reconciliation and redemption, appearing on national news networks and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

He received several awards –including, with Lewis, the 2009 Common Ground Award for Reconciliation – and gave speeches in Georgia and California.

Wilson will be buried Monday at Grandview Memorial Park on Cherry Road in Rock Hill.

He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War.

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