Former Klansman, Leftover From Days of Institutionalized Racism, Repented Before Death

Reading the LA Times obituaries recently, I came across the words dedicated to Elwin Wilson 1936-2013, an "Ex-Klan supporter who apologized in '09 for years of violent racism." Wilson first made public his racist past in the Herald Newspaper of Rockville, South Carolina, shortly after the inauguration of President Obama. Among the actions he admitted was the brutal beating of Freedom Rider and future U.S. Representative John Lewis of Georgia at a Rock Hill bus station in 1961. He went on to apologize to Lewis in the Representatives's congressional office, and in 2011 Wilson and Lewis spoke together to Oprah Winfrey in a televised broadcast.

Forgiveness is a powerful thing, and if John Lewis has it in his heart to forgive the man who beat him for the color of his skin, he is free of hate himself and able to live fully without continued suffering as the victim of a brutal beating. Congressman Lewis received apologies from government officials, but the Wilson apology remained special to him, as Lewis is quoted in the LA Times:

"He (Wilson) was the first private citizen. 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."

But was Elwin Wilson ever freed from his violent past? Besides not receiving any criminal punishment for his brutal acts, his words indicate that, in his old age, his reasons for confessing had more to do with ensuring his own heavenly salvation that righting a wrong. According to the LA Times:

In a 2009 interview, 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," Wilson said. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."

Tom Perotta's 2011 novel, The Leftovers is a brilliant satire of religion and human behavior in the face of the unexplainable. The story takes place in a suburban town following what is believed to be the Biblical "Rapture." Suddenly, with no explanation, part of the town's population vanishes leaving the rest of the residents to speculate about why they were not chosen, and how to proceed living in order to win God's grace and perhaps be reunited with their loved ones. Some of the town's residents form a new religion called The Guilty Remnant, taking a vow of silence and smoking continuously, apparently in order to hasten death. The story develops to show that the Guilty Remnant are guilty indeed of earthly crimes they view as part of their mission to get to heaven. The book is a satirical look at how dogma and religious belief can stray far from the ideal of treating others as we would treat ourselves.

Apology is definitely the first step in making amends for a crime. But that apology is tarnished when it is made for self-serving reasons alone. Dedicating one's life to making amends through good works shows a real desire to right a wrong. The God in Tom Perotta's novel The Leftovers is mysterious and unknowable. Many of the Leftovers are angry because they have lived according to the scriptures and believe they should have been chosen while others who seemed unconcerned with the scriptures were chosen in the Rapture. I would like to think that if there is a God who choses between us for eternal rewards, that there is true justice in the decision. What if humans are rewarded for being kind and good to each other and all creation without regard to the time or place or culture into which they were born, what is written in religious documents, or expectations of reward? What if we are not meant to follow scripture by rote obedience, but to use our minds to see that we are all more alike than different, and that helping each other is helping ourselves? What if love is the ultimate key to salvation and our behavior, not our words, is the test of our worthiness? An apology can be mere words. True recompense may me made through actions. Making amends may lead to forgiveness, justice and peace on earth. What happens after that is a mystery.