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Elwin Wilson, ex-Ku Klux Klan supporter who apologized for racist past

US Representative John Lewis and Mr. Wilson got together for a “Good Morning America” interview in 2009.

Andy Burris/The Herald via Associated Press/file

US Representative John Lewis and Mr. Wilson got together for a “Good Morning America” interview in 2009.

Elwin Wilson, the former Ku Klux Klan supporter who publicly apologized for years of violent racism, including the beating of a black Freedom Rider who went on to become a Georgia congressman, has died. He was 76.

His wife, Judy Wilson, said he died Thursday at a hospital in South Carolina after a bout with the flu and suffering for years with heart and lung problems.

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She said in a telephone interview Sunday that he 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 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 were 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 the soda machine in his father’s service station; and the brutal beating of US Representative John Lewis, a Georgia Democrat, at a Rock Hill bus station in 1961.

Mr. Wilson with a photo he kept showing his participation with a mob at a civil rights sit-in.

Associated Press/File 2009

Mr. Wilson with a photo he kept showing his participation with a mob at a civil rights sit-in.

‘‘His story is a powerful story; his story must not be forgotten,’’ Lewis told the Herald in a telephone interview Saturday. ‘‘His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told.’’

After his apology in the newspaper, Mr. Wilson apologized in several other public venues, including during a meeting with Lewis at the congressman’s Capitol Hill office.

‘He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me.’

US Representative John Lewis, who was brutally beaten by Mr. Wilson in 1961  
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In an April 2009 interview with the Associated Press, Mr. Wilson tried to explain why he had decided to apologize. ‘‘All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I’ve done,’’ he 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, Ala., and the governor. But Mr. 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 Mr. Wilson 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, Mr. Wilson presented Lewis with an award. They also told their story to Oprah Winfrey and millions of viewers.

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