Thursday, December 14, 2017
Opinion

Column: Proof that love can overcome evil

A few words on the death of Elwin Wilson.

He passed last week in a South Carolina hospital at age 76. Wilson had endured heart and lung problems and had suffered a recent bout with the flu.

There is little reason you would know his name, but as a young man, Wilson made a virtual career out of hatefulness. He was a Ku Klux Klan supporter who burned crosses, hanged a black doll in a noose, once flung a jack handle at an African-American boy. In 1961, he was among a group of men who attacked a busload of Freedom Riders at a station in Rock Hill, S.C.

In none of those things was he unique, so no, his name should ring no bells.

As it happens, Wilson's passing coincides with a significant anniversary. It was 50 years ago this week that 65 "Negroes" set out from 16th Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and seated themselves at the lunch counters of five department stores. Rather than serve these customers, workers at four of the counters closed up shop. One store — Britt's — called police and 21 demonstrators were hauled away.

It was the opening gambit of what became the signature moment of the civil rights movement, that tumultuous spring when the world watched a town blast human flesh with high-pressure hoses capable of stripping tree bark, rather than allow Negroes to use public facilities.

The protesters called it Project C, for confrontation. History knows it by the name of the Alabama town where it took place, a city so thoroughly segregated there was a law on the books banning blacks and whites from playing checkers together: Birmingham.

Though everyone has seen footage of the hoses and snarling dogs by which that city embarrassed itself in 1963, one suspects most of us know little about the rationale of the demonstrations, the reason the movement asked its people to accept such outrageous abuse without striking back.

In a 1965 speech, Martin Luther King explained the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He could have been speaking to Wilson. "We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws," he said, "because noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. So do to us what you will and we will still love you."

That defiant love, he said, would survive jails, bombs, beatings, threats and lies. "But be ye assured," he warned, "that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process."

Here, then, is what makes Wilson memorable. Four years ago, he vindicated that prophecy. In old age, it seems, the things he'd done as a young man had begun to sit on his conscience like stones. He once told an interviewer about a friend who asked him, "If you died right now, do you know where you would go?" Wilson did. "To hell," he said.

Then he learned one of the Freedom Riders he beat up in '61 is now a member of Congress. In 2009, Wilson sought out John Lewis and went to Washington to ask forgiveness, which Lewis gave. The two men wept.

A half century ago, a handful of determined black men, women and children committed an act of sacred courage in the very heart of segregation. They fought for a single goal: freedom.

But not only for themselves. No, they also sought to free white people like Wilson, release them from the crippling burden of hate.

Both struggles are ongoing and sometimes, one despairs of progress. But, just often enough, despair is interdicted by a reminder of the human capacity to learn, grow, become better.

This is the arc of Elwin Hope Wilson's improbable journey. It's what the protesters knew when they stood in that high-pressure spray … and sang: And they were right.

We shall overcome, someday.

© 2013 Miami Herald

Comments
Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Editorial: Congress should block efforts to expand offshore drilling

Timing is everything, and Sen. Bill Nelson seized the right moment this week to call on his colleagues to pass legislation he filed earlier this year that would block the Trump administration from opening additional areas to offshore drilling. With t...
Updated: 11 hours ago

Another voice: Alabama picks an honorable man

THANK YOU, Alabama.In Tuesdayís special election, the state by a narrow margin chose to spare the nation the indignity of seating an accused child molester in the U.S. Senate. Though the stain of electing Republican Roy Moore would have sullied Alaba...
Updated: 11 hours ago
Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

Editorial: Tax cuts arenít worth harm to Tampa Bay

As congressional negotiators hammer out the details on an enormous, unnecessary tax cut, the potential negative impact on Tampa Bay and Florida is becoming clearer. The harmful consequences stretch far beyond adding more than $1.4 trillion to the fed...
Published: 12/12/17

Another voice: Privacy in the internet age

How much information about you is on your cellphone? Likely the most intimate details of your life: photographs, internet searches, text and email conversations with friends and colleagues. And though you might not know it, your phone is constantly c...
Published: 12/10/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Editorial: Grand jury could force reforms of juvenile justice system

Confronted with documentation of sanctioned brutality and sexual abuse in Floridaís juvenile detention centers, the reaction from Gov. Rick Scottís administration was defensive and obtuse. So itís welcome news that Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine...
Published: 12/08/17
Updated: 12/11/17

Editorial: U.S. House sides with NRA over stateís rights on concealed weapons permits

With the horror of the mass shootings at a Las Vegas country music concert and a small Texas church still fresh, the U.S. House finally has taken action on guns. But the bill it passed last week wonít make Americans safer from gun violence. It is an ...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

Editorial: Hillsborough cannot afford pay raises for teachers

There is no satisfaction for anyone in the standoff over pay raises between the Hillsborough County School District and its teachers. Most teachers across the nation already are underpaid, but this district simply cannot afford the raises teachers ex...
Published: 12/07/17
Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

Editorial: Impact of Water Street project extends beyond buildings

With a buildout of $3 billion encompassing entire city blocks, itís obvious that Jeff Vinikís plans will change the look and feel of downtown Tampa. But the Tampa Bay Lightning owner unveiled a broader vision last week that reflects how far the impac...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/08/17
Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

Editorial: Make texting while driving a primary offense

It is dangerous and illegal to text while driving in Florida, and police should be able to pull over and ticket those lawbreakers without witnessing another violation first. House Speaker Richard Corcoran has lent his powerful voice to legislation th...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17

Editorial: Outsourcing common sense on St. Petersburg Pier naming rights

St. Petersburg officials predict that selling the naming rights to parts of the new Pier could generate $100,000 in annual revenue. But first the city wants to pay a consultant to tell it how and to whom to sell the rights. Why do city officials need...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17