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Apology accepted, 48 years after beating

By Ben Evans
Associated Press / February 6, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Elwin Wilson was an unabashed racist, the sort who once hung a black doll from a noose outside his home. John Lewis was a young civil rights leader bent on changing laws, if not hearts and minds, even if it cost him his life.

They faced each other at a South Carolina bus station during a protest in 1961. Wilson joined a white gang that jeered Lewis, attacked him, and left him bloodied on the ground.

Forty-eight years later the men met again, this time so that Wilson could apologize to Lewis and express regret for his hatred. Lewis, now a congressman from Atlanta, greeted his former tormentor at his Capitol Hill office.

"I just told him that I was sorry," Wilson, 72, said in a telephone interview Wednesday as he traveled home to Rock Hill, S.C. For years, he said, he tried to block the incident out of his mind but couldn't do it.

"I was very moved," Lewis said. "He was 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."

Wilson's apology was first reported by a local paper. After reading an article about local black civil rights leaders reacting to President Obama's inauguration, he and another former segregationist called the paper saying they wanted to apologize.

The paper aired their comments and reported on an emotional meeting with the local activists at a former whites-only diner in Rock Hill, where Wilson had antagonized demonstrators during a 1961 sit-in.

Wilson later realized that Lewis must have been the young black man he had attacked at the bus station that same year, when a bus carrying two Freedom Riders rolled into town.

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