A resident of Rock Hill, South Carolina, Wilson was, plain and simple, a bigot: he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. He burned crosses; he got a noose and hanged a black doll from a tree in his front yard to intimidate the children of a black family that moved in near him; he threw cantaloupes at black men walking on the street; he joined in attacks against lunch-counter protestors. And, when the Freedom Riders, who rode around the south on buses to protest segregation on public transportation, made a stop in Rock Hill in 1961, Wilson was ready for them: he led a mob who savagely beat a black man who dared to step off the bus in their town to wait for the next bus. The bloodied man did not fight back; he even refused to press charges against his attackers.
In 2009, Wilson had second thoughts about his racist life. The turning point was watching the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Wilson called the Rock Hill Herald newspaper to confess he was one of the leaders of the bus station mob, and asked if they would publish an apology for his racism and violence. What changed after 50 years of racism? “Well, my daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind. And that’s what I’ve done.” His son, he said, had also encouraged him to make amends for his actions. The paper published the apology, and only then did Wilson learn who the man was that he beat up: a 21-year-old Baptist seminary student who was now a Congressman, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia. Wilson quickly traveled to Lewis’s Congressional office to apologize in person — face-to-face, like a man, bringing his son with him. “He started crying,” Lewis remembers. “His son started crying, and I started crying.” Lewis accepted the apology, and the three men embraced. “It’s in keeping with the philosophy of nonviolence,” Lewis said. “That’s what the [civil rights] movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation.”
That same year, Lewis and Wilson jointly accepted the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation at the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., and both received awards on Worldwide Forgiveness Day. “He said he wished he could find the ones he mistreated and apologize to them all,” said Wilson’s wife, Judy. “He said he had it on his heart for a long time.” Wilson had heart and lung problems and was in declining health, and died on March 28 after catching the flu. He was 76.