Skip to main content

I have a remarkable story to tell you about forgiveness. A week ago, a man named Elwin Wilson died. A member of the Ku Klux Klan, Wilson was part of a group of white men who attacked two Freedom Riders in South Carolina in 1961. The victims, one white and one black, were traveling together throughout the South to protest Jim Crow segregation laws, and had stopped in a bus station in Rock Hill. When the two dared to step foot in a waiting area marked as “whites only,” Wilson and his group jumped them, leaving them bloodied.

The two Freedom Riders, Albert Bigelow and John Lewis, refused to fight back and did not press charges. Lewis, a pacifist, later became the chair of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and a major leader in the civil rights movement. Decades later, he bears visible scars from having his skull fractured on “Bloody Sunday,” when Alabama state troopers beat civil rights protesters during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches.

Four years ago, the story took an amazing turn. Wilson, then in his seventies, sought out the civil rights protesters he had harmed and asked for forgiveness. He learned that one of them was Lewis, now a Georgia congressman.

Lewis not only accepted Wilson’s apology — the first one, he noted, that any white supremacist had ever offered him — he also went on the road with his old nemesis. The two appeared on Oprah and accepted recognition from various organizations. Lewis said he wanted to use the occasion as an opportunity for racial reconciliation. It brought to mind words that the Reverend Martin Luther King once spoke of the day that “the lion and the lamb shall lie down together” — the one-time oppressor and one-time victim now hailing each other as “friend,” with the irony that their positions of power had been, in many ways, reversed.

At the end of his life, Wilson revealed a fundamental decency. If we had grown up in the same climate of hate, how many of us would have had the strength not just to overcome it, but to reach out to those we had wronged so many years ago? We should recognize men and women like Wilson who radically change for the better, who embrace love and reject hate.

But I also want to emphasize the courage it took for Lewis to accept that apology. Forgiving someone who not only beat you but rejected your very humanity takes tremendous character. It requires denying a very natural desire to hurt the person who hurt you, to inflict some of the pain that person inflicted on you, even if not through an equivalent act of violence.

Rather than taking his crimes with him to the grave, Wilson repented. Rather than indulge the impulse for vengeance, Lewis forgave. We could all learn from their example.

Cross posted at In The Fray.

PS-This post, I believe, dovetails nicely with Denise Oliver Velez's two-part series on apology and reconciliation in Australia, which you can see here and here.

PPS-Please check out my new book Obama's America: A Transformative Vision of Our National Identity, published by Potomac Books, where I discuss Barack Obama's ideas on racial, ethnic, and national identity in detail, and contrast his inclusive vision to language coming from Mitt Romney, Rush Limbaugh and (some) others on the right. You can read a review by DailyKos's own Greg Dworkin here.

Originally posted to Ian Reifowitz on Mon Apr 08, 2013 at 06:20 AM PDT.

Also republished by The Federation, Invisible People, Barriers and Bridges, and Black Kos community.

Your Email has been sent.
You must add at least one tag to this diary before publishing it.

Add keywords that describe this diary. Separate multiple keywords with commas.
Tagging tips - Search For Tags - Browse For Tags


More Tagging tips:

A tag is a way to search for this diary. If someone is searching for "Barack Obama," is this a diary they'd be trying to find?

Use a person's full name, without any title. Senator Obama may become President Obama, and Michelle Obama might run for office.

If your diary covers an election or elected official, use election tags, which are generally the state abbreviation followed by the office. CA-01 is the first district House seat. CA-Sen covers both senate races. NY-GOV covers the New York governor's race.

Tags do not compound: that is, "education reform" is a completely different tag from "education". A tag like "reform" alone is probably not meaningful.

Consider if one or more of these tags fits your diary: Civil Rights, Community, Congress, Culture, Economy, Education, Elections, Energy, Environment, Health Care, International, Labor, Law, Media, Meta, National Security, Science, Transportation, or White House. If your diary is specific to a state, consider adding the state (California, Texas, etc). Keep in mind, though, that there are many wonderful and important diaries that don't fit in any of these tags. Don't worry if yours doesn't.

You can add a private note to this diary when hotlisting it:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from your hotlist?
Are you sure you want to remove your recommendation? You can only recommend a diary once, so you will not be able to re-recommend it afterwards.
Rescue this diary, and add a note:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary from Rescue?
Choose where to republish this diary. The diary will be added to the queue for that group. Publish it from the queue to make it appear.

You must be a member of a group to use this feature.

Add a quick update to your diary without changing the diary itself:
Are you sure you want to remove this diary?
(The diary will be removed from the site and returned to your drafts for further editing.)
(The diary will be removed.)
Are you sure you want to save these changes to the published diary?

Comment Preferences

Subscribe or Donate to support Daily Kos.

Click here for the mobile view of the site