25. April 2013 10:35
For more information on the upcoming symposium click here: http://bcri.org/education_programs/symposium2013.html
As we and others gather today in Birmingham, Alabama to commemorate the events of 1963 that gave the civil rights movement a great push forward towards achieving equal voting and other rights for all Americans, I think this moment is an opportunity to remember some of the core values and principles of the non-violent protests and civil disobedience campaigns that characterized the movement, and led to its ultimate success. I was reminded of that recently upon reading the news of the death of a certain Mr. Elwin Wilson, of Rock Hill, South Carolina, a racist who ironically would ultimately stand out as an icon of what the civil rights movement was, and is, all about.
He was one of many white southerners who beat up the Freedom Riders, white and black young men who integrated bus services and bus stations throughout the south in the spring of 1961, often subjecting themselves to vicious beatings. Among the Freedom Riders he once assaulted were Albert Bigelow, a white man, and John Lewis, a black man, who were in a whites-only waiting room at the Greyhound bus station. Lewis later became a prominent civil rights activist and U.S. Democratic Congressman from Georgia.
Elwin Wilson said he had an awakening after Barack Obama was elected president, and telephoned a local newspaper in 2009 to admit that he had beaten Freedom Riders and other activists, and apologized for his deeds. When he learned that Lewis had become a U.S. Congressman, he traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet him and apologize in person, and ask forgiveness. Lewis quickly expressed his forgiveness, and the two men made several media appearances after that to promote social reconciliation and forgiveness.
Lewis later said in an interview that Wilson's was the first apology he had ever received for the violence committed against him during the civil rights movement; he added that he did not hesitate for a moment to accept it. Upon learning of Wilson's death earlier this year, Lewis said that accepting the apology and expressing forgiveness, "is in keeping with the philosophy of non-violence. That's what the movement was always about, to have the capacity to forgive and move toward reconciliation."
The sheer human courage and drama of both Wilson's apology and Lewis' forgiveness are a timely reminder of the underlying goals of the civil rights movement and any other quest for social justice: not just to achieve equal individual rights for all, but to heal past grievances and wounds, and therefore to be able to push society forward to a condition of well-being, stability, and dignity for all citizens.