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Once repugnant, now he's repentant

ROCK HILL, S.C. — Elwin Hope Wilson sits in his Tillman Street home, a sad, sickly man haunted by time. All around are antique clocks, at least a hundred of them, ticking, chiming and clanging in an hourly cacophony that measures the passing days.

Why clocks?, his wife, Judy, asks, but he offers no answer.

Wilson doesn't have answers for much of how he has lived his life — not for all the black people he beat up, not for all the venom he spewed, not for all the time wasted in hate.

Now 72 and ailing, his body swollen by diabetes, Wilson is spending as many hours pondering his past as he is his mortality.

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for once hurling a jack handle at a black kid, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961.

In the final chapter of his life, Wilson is seeking forgiveness. The burly clock collector wants to be saved before he hears his last chime.

And so Wilson has spent recent months apologizing to "the people I had trouble with." He has embraced black men his own age, at the same lunch counter where once they were denied service and hauled off to jail.

Wilson has carried his apology into black churches where he has unburdened it in prayer.

And he has taken it to Washington, to the office of Rep. John Lewis of Atlanta, the civil rights leader whose face Wilson smashed at the Greyhound bus station during the famed Freedom Rides 48 years ago.

The apologies have won headlines and praise. Strangers, black and white, have hailed him as a hero.

But Wilson feels confused. He cannot fully answer the lingering questions, the doubts. Where did all the hate come from? And where did it go?

"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years," Wilson says. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."

• • •

Wilson has a pale face, thin white hair and small pursed lips that rarely smile. He doesn't care what people think of him and bluntly declares, "I might like you one day and not the next."

Wilson's 49-year-old son, Chris, describes his deep embarrassment growing up with a father who would holler at blacks in restaurants, sneer at them in public, brazenly use the N-word in front of Chris' teen friends.

Wilson seems unsure where his racism originated. It wasn't inherited, he says. He was an only child; his parents treated everyone equally, though Wilson says his father, a gas station owner, once told him that his grandfather and grandfather's brothers had been involved with the klan.

"I guess it was just the crowd I ran with," Wilson says with a shrug. "It was sport."

Sport was running moonshine with the likes of Junior Johnson, the famed NASCAR driver who honed his skills outracing police on the back roads of Wilkes County, N.C. Sport was gunning his 1955 Chevrolet — his "little red wagon" — in drag races all over the state.

Sport was marching down Main Street behind hooded members of the KKK. And taunting the young black students who walked silently to the segregated lunch counters of Woolworth's and McCrory's only to get arrested by police.

And sport was lying in wait for a certain bus to pull into the Greyhound depot on May 9, 1961. Freedom Riders, they were called, black and white students traveling through the South, testing the new desegregation laws at bus station restaurants and restrooms.

In his autobiography Lewis described what happened.

"Other side, n-----," one of the two 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."

Wilson winces as he reads the passage from a copy of the book that Lewis gave him. For years he didn't know the identity of the man he had beaten, though he says that over time, guilt began weighing heavy on his heart.

• • •

Willie McCleod. Robert McCullough. John Gaines. W.T. "Dub" Massey. Thomas Gaither. Clarence Graham. James Wells. David Williamson Jr. Mack Workman.

These are the men whom Wilson taunted all those years ago. The men to whom he has been apologizing in recent months.

Their names are engraved on the stools at the counter of the Old Town Bistro on Main Street. The former McCrory's is now a family-run restaurant where servers greet regulars by name and pour endless cups of coffee for patrons, black and white.

And yet it is impossible not to feel transported in time.

Sepia-toned photographs hang on the walls, images of young black men at this very counter, where "temporarily closed" signs went up as soon as they sat down.

Outside, a historic plaque marks the spot where nine Friendship Junior College students took an extraordinary stand on Jan. 31, 1961, choosing jail rather than bail after being arrested for ordering lunch. Convicted of trespassing and breach of peace, the students endured a month's hard labor in a chain gang rather than allow civil rights groups to pay for their release. The "Friendship Nine" drew national headlines and soon the policy of "jail, no bail" was being emulated all over the South.

McCleod and Massey, now in their 60s, smile as they recall those days — how young and foolish they were, how filled with conviction and pride. And they describe the swirl of emotions they feel, even now, when they return to this place. There is joy and sadness, says McCleod. Joy at what they accomplished. Sadness that there was such hate.

The men say they never thought about their tormentors as individuals with real lives and real names. So it has been strange and somewhat discomforting to suddenly be confronted by a real name, a real man, a white bigot who wants to repent.

An unease creeps into their conversation when it turns to the subject of apologies. There have been several in recent years — when Mayor Doug Echols officially apologized to Lewis, when the York County Council apologized to the Friendship Nine. And now Elwin Wilson.

His apology, offered in the restaurant in January, was facilitated by the local newspaper, the Herald, which Wilson called after reading an article about the nine.

Not all agreed to meet with him. Privately, some questioned his motives, his timing, his sincerity.

David Williamson had no qualms. He understands a man wanting to put his affairs in order before meeting his maker. "I think it is a testament to how the world has changed and how hearts have changed," Williamson says.

It was at the meeting that Wilson finally discovered that the student he had beaten at the bus station had gone on to become a congressman — a discovery that eventually led to his well-publicized apology to Lewis in Washington.

Mack Workman, another member of the nine, watched the apology on television.

"In the back of my mind," he says, "I just keep thinking, 'Why now?' "

• • •

Wilson says he gave up drinking in 1976. He is less sure when he gave up hating blacks.

"By the time I went to college I had dropped all that jumping on them," he says.

That was in the 1970s when Wilson was in his late 30s. Over the years, he had drifted through different jobs — construction foreman, welder, millwright. He had joined the Air Force, where he began associating with blacks as equals for the first time. And he had returned to Rock Hill, where he enrolled in Friendship Junior College under the GI bill.

He saw no irony in the fact that the college was black. It was convenient. And times had changed.

And yet there was a hardness in Wilson's heart that hadn't changed.

In the 1980s, when the local cemetery began burying blacks alongside whites, Wilson became so incensed he threatened to disinter the bodies of his parents. When a black family bought a house in the neighborhood around the same time, Wilson accosted the real estate agent and demanded that the sale be rescinded.

He yelled racial insults whenever his grandson, Christopher, talked on the phone to his black wrestling buddy. When a garden ornament — a stone statue of a black boy in a straw hat — was vandalized in Wilson's front yard, he strung up a black doll with a noose around its neck and threatened to use an AK-47 against a neighbor who complained.

Wilson says now he is ashamed of his behavior. He has since apologized to his grandson and to the neighbor. Still, he worried that wasn't enough.

"I'm going to hell," he told Clarence Bradley one day in January, when he stopped by his friend's auto paint and body shop. The two have long shared an interest in antiques and cars.

"If you truly ask forgiveness and you mean it in your heart, you can be saved," said Bradley, 62, a serious man who firmly believes in the urgent need for more people to invite the Lord into their lives.

They talked about it some more. Another friend, a part-time preacher, walked in and the men prayed together.

"Only God and Elwin know what's in his heart," Bradley says. "But I can tell you something in that man changed that day."

Wilson says he felt it too, a sense of peace that he was no longer doomed.

A week later, Wilson saw a newspaper article about the Friendship Nine as they watched the inauguration of the nation's first black president. He knew exactly what to do.

• • •

Nailed to one wall in Wilson's two-car garage is the "colored" sign that once hung over the restroom in the bus station. Wilson says he keeps it, "to remind me what I did wrong."

In his living room is another reminder, a 1961 newspaper photograph that shows a black man wiping egg off his hat, surrounded by a bunch of sneering white youths.

"That was me," Wilson says, staring at the image of the man who threw the egg.

"I am a different man now," he says.

Once repugnant, now he's repentant 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 9:37pm]
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