A few words on the death of Elwin Wilson.
He passed last week in a South Carolina hospital at age 76. Wilson had endured heart and lung problems and had suffered a recent bout with the flu.
There is little reason you would know his name, but as a young man, Wilson made a virtual career out of hatefulness. He was a Klan supporter who burned crosses, hanged a black doll in a noose, once flung a jack handle at an African-American boy. In 1961, he was among a group of men who attacked a busload of Freedom Riders at a station in Rock Hill, S.C.
In none of those things was he unique, so no, his name should ring no bells.
As it happens, Wilson’s passing coincides with a significant anniversary. It was 50 years ago today that 65 “Negroes” set out from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and seated themselves at the lunch counters of five department stores. Rather than serve these customers, workers at four of the counters closed up shop. One store — Britt’s — called police and 21 demonstrators were hauled away.
It was the opening gambit of what became the signature moment of the Civil Rights Movement, that tumultuous spring when the world watched a town blast human flesh with high pressure hoses capable of stripping tree bark, rather than allow Negroes to use public facilities. The protesters called it Project C, for confrontation. History knows it by the name of the Alabama town where it took place, a city so thoroughly segregated there was a law on the books banning blacks and whites from playing checkers together: Birmingham.
Though everyone has seen footage of the hoses and snarling dogs by which that city embarrassed itself in 1963, one suspects most of us know little about the rationale of the demonstrations, the reason the movement asked its people to accept such outrageous abuse without striking back.
In a 1965 speech, Martin Luther King explained the philosophy of nonviolent resistance. He could have been speaking to Wilson. “We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws,” he said, “because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. So do to us what you will and we will still love you.”
That defiant love, he said, would survive jails, bombs, beatings, threats and lies. “But be ye assured,” he warned, “that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. And one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves. We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process.”
Here, then, is what makes Wilson memorable. Four years ago, he vindicated that prophecy. In old age, it seems, the things he’d done as a young man had begun to sit on his conscience like stones. He once told an interviewer about a friend who asked him, “If you died right now, do you know where you would go?” Wilson did. “To hell,” he said.
Then he learned one of the Freedom Riders he beat up in ‘61 is now a member of Congress. In 2009, Wilson sought out John Lewis and went to Washington to ask forgiveness, which Lewis gave. The two men wept.
A half century ago, a handful of determined black men, women and children committed an act of sacred courage in the very heart of segregation. They fought for a single goal: freedom.
But not only for themselves. No, they also sought to free white people like Wilson, release them from the crippling burden of hate.
Both struggles are ongoing and sometimes, one despairs of progress. But, just often enough, despair is interdicted by a reminder of the human capacity to learn, grow, become better.
This is the arc of Elwin Hope Wilson’s improbable journey. It’s what the protesters knew when they stood in that high-pressure spray … and sang: And they were right.
We shall overcome, someday.