One man's ambivalent retreat from his racist past





Elwin Hope Wilson leans back in his recliner, a sad, sickly man haunted by time.

Wilson doesn't have answers for much of how he has lived his life — not for all the black people he beat up, not for all the venom he spewed, not for all the time wasted in hate.

Now 72 and ailing, his body swollen by diabetes, his eyes degenerating, Wilson is spending as many hours pondering his past as he is his mortality.

The former Ku Klux Klan supporter says he wants to atone for the cross burnings on Hollis Lake Road. He wants to apologize for hanging a black doll in a noose at the end of his drive, for flinging cantaloupes at black men walking down Main Street, for hurling a jack handle at the black kid jiggling the soda machine in his father's service station, for brutally beating a 21-year-old seminary student at the bus station in 1961.

In the final chapter of his life, Wilson is seeking forgiveness. The burly clock collector wants to be saved before he hears his last chime.

And so Wilson has spent recent months apologizing to "the people I had trouble with." He has embraced black men his own age, at the same lunch counter where once they were denied service and hauled off to jail as mobs of white youths, Wilson among them, threw insults and eggs and fists.

Wilson has carried his apology into black churches where he has unburdened it in prayer.

And he has taken it to Washington, to the office of Congressman John Lewis of Atlanta, the civil rights leader whose face Wilson smashed at the Greyhound bus station during the famed Freedom Rides 48 years ago.

The apologies have won headlines and praise. Letters have poured in, lauding Wilson's courage. Strangers, black and white, have hailed him as a hero.

But Wilson doesn't feel like a hero. He feels confused. He cannot fully answer the lingering questions, the doubts. Where did all the hate come from? And where did it go?

And the question he gets asked most often: Why now?

"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I've done," Wilson says, speaking slowly and deliberately. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."




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