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 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 "and couldn't do it."
Lewis said Wilson is the first person involved in the dozens of attacks against him during the civil rights era to step forward and apologize. When they met Tuesday, Lewis offered forgiveness without hesitation.
"I was very moved," said Lewis. "He was very, 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 said he had felt an urge to voice his remorse for years. He talked about his past activities a few weeks ago with a friend, and the friend asked him where he thought he might go if he died.
"I said probably hell," Wilson said. "He said, 'Well, you don't have to.'"
Wilson's apology was first reported by The (Rock Hill, S.C.) Herald. After reading an article about local black civil rights leaders reacting to President Barack Obama's inauguration, he and another former segregationist called the paper saying they wanted to apologize.
The paper aired their comments and documented an emotional meeting with the local activists at a former whites-only lunch counter in downtown Rock Hill, where Wilson had antagonized demonstrators during a 1961 sit-in.
After meeting with the local activists, Wilson 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. The riders were Lewis, who is black, and the late Albert Bigelow, who was white. Neither pressed charges over the assault.
Wilson didn't know that Lewis, who was 21 at the time, had since become one of the most influential Democrats in Congress.
"I never dreamed that a man that I had assaulted, that he would ever be a congressman and that I'd ever see him again," Wilson said. "He and everybody up there in his office ... they were just good people, treated you right and all."
Lewis and Wilson said they hoped Wilson's quest for redemption will inspire others who took part in civil rights-era violence to come forward and help heal wounds from the struggle over integration.
"I said if just one person comes forward and gets the hate out of their heart, it's all worth it," Wilson said. "But I hope there will be a bunch of people. Life's short and we all go to the same place when we die."
What do you think? Would you forgive him?