I have been studying the civil rights movement for over a decade, and continue to be amazed by the stories of courage and sacrifice that marked that heroic era in United States history. From iconic figures like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., to the thousands of women and men who gave up buses for over a year to bring greater racial justice, we grow as a people when we remember and honor those who served on the front lines in the struggle against racism.
Remembering the perpetrators of racist crimes and atrocities is far less enjoyable, but remains part of the story. The stories of evicting sharecroppers who attempted to register to vote must be told. The stories of bombing and burning the homes and churches of those actively seeking social change must be told. The stories of beating and raping and even lynching innocent men and women in the name of white supremacy must be told.
One of the ways our society has tried to remember and make peace with these less pleasant stories is through recent trials of those who committed some of the worst of these atrocities. Over the past 15 years, several of those who murdered civil rights workers have finally been tried for their offenses.
As important as these trials are to truly dealing with the ugly legacy of racism, we also need to hear many more stories like that of Elwin Wilson of Rock Hills, South Carolina. On May 9, 1961, when the Congress of Racial Equality’s (CORE) Freedom Riders came into town and attempted to enter an all white waiting room at the bus station, Ku Klux Klan member Elwin Wilson was there. When he saw future enter, Wilson attacked, pummeling the young civil rights worker, who responded with nonviolence.
This was not the first or last time that Lewis would face abuse as a leader in the civil rights movement. During sit-ins, the freedom rides, and at the front of the marchers who were violently abused with batons on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma on “Bloody Sunday,” Lewis was beaten numerous times. But, according to Lewis, none of the men who beat and abused him have ever apologized-until now.
A few weeks ago, Elwin Wilson contacted representative Lewis to apologize for beating Lewis nearly 48 years ago. For the past several weeks, Wilson has been apologizing to members of the African-American community in Rock Hills for his numerous acts of racial hatred. He has had the guts to simply say “I’m sorry.” And representative John Lewis responded to this former member of the KKK with mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and now refers to Wilson as a friend.
The story of John Lewis and Elwin Wilson needs to be told and remembered. Parts of it are regrettable, and yet the power of forgiveness and healing found in their recent encounter is the gospel at work in a broken and fallen world.
Unfortunately, these types of apologies are far too rare. In fact, Lewis said that Elwin Wilson is the very first person out of the hundreds who attacked and abused him during the civil rights struggle to say “I’m sorry.”
If we are to continue to come to terms with our tragic racial history, Wilson cannot be the last to have the courage to say “I’m sorry.” I pray we will be encouraged and challenged by Wilson’s repentance and Lewis’ forgiveness in all areas of our lives, and particularly regarding areas of injustice. As Jesus was fond of saying, “Go and do likewise.”