Man Asks Entire Town for Forgiveness for Racism
48 Years Ago, He Attacked Future Rep. John Lewis; Now the Two Hug
By CLAIRE SHIPMAN, CINDY SMITH and LEE FERRAN
Feb. 6, 2009
Nearly half a century ago, in a very different America, Elwin Wilson and John Lewis met under a veil of violence and race-inspired hate.
Wilson, a young, white, Southern man, attacked Lewis, a freedom rider for Martin Luther King, in the "white" waiting room of a South Carolina bus station.
The men had not seen each other again until Tuesday when, with "Good Morning America's" help, Wilson approached Lewis again -- this time offering an apology and a chance to relieve a burden he'd carried for more than four decades.
"I'm so sorry about what happened back then," Wilson said breathlessly.
"It's OK. I forgive you," Lewis responded before a long-awaited hug.
For Lewis, who in the intervening years became a U.S. representative from Georgia, the apology was an unexpected symbol of the change in time and hearts.
"I never thought this would happen," he told "GMA." "It says something about the power of love, of grace, the power of the people being able to say, 'I'm sorry,' and move on. And I deeply appreciate it. It's very meaningful for me."
For both, that particular point in their past is a painful memory.
"[I remember] going directly to the Greyhound bus station," Lewis said. "We tried to enter a so-called 'white' waiting room and the moment we started through the door, a group of young men attacked us."
Wilson was in the group, but said he "did more than help." He said he was the main attacker.
The outburst, Wilson said, was just part of a life of hate he led for years.
"I had a black baby doll in this house, and I had a little rope, and I tied it to a limb and let it hang here," he said.
In a diner, with a look of glee on his face, he threw eggs at black men who tried to enter.
"I tried to block it out of my mind. It kept coming back," he said.
Wilson's son, Christopher, said recalling life with his father brought back his own painful memories.
"He was a really hard person to deal with growing up," Christopher said through tears. "He embarrassed me in restaurants and stuff. I always tell him, 'We are all the same.'"
But now, Christopher said he is "really proud."
The change, one Wilson said was a long time coming, was sparked by Barack Obama's presidential victory.
"I like Barack Obama," he said. "I didn't vote for him, but I'm glad he's there, and I've prayed for him."
Since then, Wilson has been on his own freedom march in search of forgiveness.
He went back to the diner where he threw eggs. He went all around town, apologizing to anyone he may have wronged. Pretty soon, he found out that one of the men he wanted to apologize to was a U.S. representative.
"I think it's a day of history," Wilson said when he met Lewis. "I want to love people regardless of what color."
"For you to come here today, it's amazing to me," Lewis said. "It's unreal. It's unbelievable. Maybe, just maybe, others will come forward because there needs to be this healing."
"Good to see you, my friend. Good to see you," Lewis added.