Elwin Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan supporter who publicly apologized later in life for his violence and racism, has died at the age of 76 in South Carolina.
His wife, Judy Wilson, told the Associated Press that her husband was relieved he lived long enough to try to make amends for years of racial hatred.
He detailed his deeds at length when he called The Herald of Rock Hill to apologize shortly after President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009.
"He said he had it on his heart for a long time," Judy Wilson said. "He said he wished he could find the ones he mistreated and apologize to them all."
Among his actions:
- Cross burnings
- Hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive
- Flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street
- Hurling a jack handle at a black boy jiggling a soda machine in his dad's gas station
- The brutal beating of future U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) at a bus station in 1961
"His story is a powerful story; his story must not be forgotten," Lewis told The Herald. "His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told."
After his apology to the newspaper, Wilson apologized in other public venues, including during a meeting with Lewis at the congressman's Capitol Hill office.
Wilson tried to explain why he had decided to apologize in 2009.
"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years," Wilson said. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."
This month, Lewis received apologies from the current police chief of Montgomery, Alabama, and the governor. But Wilson's apology remains special.
"He was the first private citizen," Lewis said.
"He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me ... for a private citizen to come along and say, 'I'm the one that attacked you; I'm the one who beat you.'"
"It was very meaningful."
In 2009, Lewis and Wilson came together and accepted the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C.
Also that year, both were honored in California with awards on Worldwide Forgiveness Day. In Maryland, Wilson presented Lewis with an award.
They also told their story to TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey.