Forty-Eight Years After John Lewis Was Attacked

On the “Quiet Insistence to Do What is Right”

David Zahl / 7.31.20

A stop-you-in-your-tracks story of (and reflection upon) sin, repentance, reconciliation, and hope from the late congressman John Lewis’ final book, Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America, which we discuss on the forthcoming episode of The Mockingcast. Even if you’ve heard about the incident elsewhere, it’s worth reading Lewis’ own words on the matter:

Diffusing the fury of violence by obstructing and redirecting the intention of an attacker is itself an act of love … Having compassion for your attacker means you harbor no malice and seek no retribution for the wrong that has been done. It is an offering of love that asserts the victim’s self-worth. It makes room for the inner working of his or her soul that has a way of invoking a quiet insistence to do what is right.

This brings to mind the one and only attacker, of the forty times I was arrested and jailed, who apologized to me for his actions. Almost forty-eight years after that now famous Freedom Ride stop in Rock Hill, South Carolina, that left Albert Bigelow and me so badly bruised and bloodied, Elwin Wilson, one of our attackers, wanted to come to meet me.

Wilson had apologized to other Freedom Riders during ceremonies honoring them in South Carolina and had mentioned his wish to find the men he had beaten up that day in Rock Hill. I welcomed him to Washington and as we sat, Wilson looked deep into my eyes, searching my expression, and said he was the person who had beaten me in Rock Hill in May of 1961. He said, “I am sorry about what I did that day. Will you forgive me?” Without a moment of hesitation, I looked back at him and said, “I accept your apology.” The man who had physically and verbally assaulted me was now seeking my approval. This was a great testament to the power of love to overcome hatred …

Wilson has said publicly that he is glad to be able to count me as a friend today, and he has expressly mentioned his gratitude that we did not press charges that day. His life and the life of his family could have been changed forever if South Carolina had actually tried and convicted him. But beyond that, had he been tried, it would have added a layer of justification to the rationalization that always accompanies guilt. If he had been publicly vindicated, which would have been the likely outcome, it would have been more difficult for him to come to the point where he eventually believed an apology was in order, and more difficult for him to feel love.

Elwin Wilson also said that he was glad we did not have any weapons that day. If Albert Bigelow and I had inflicted harm in Rock Hill, we would have fueled the flames of violence instead of putting them out. Any sense of remorse would have had to compete with the fire of anger. Instead of a possible reconciliation, revenge would have been the product of that violent confrontation in Rock Hill. But because we met this man in love and offered him our respect despite his obvious hatred, it gave him nothing to justify his anger. He left that day only to review it in his mind so many times over the years. The resonance of our innocence made room in his own soul for the realization that he needed to ask for forgiveness. I was surprised to hear him clearly restate forty-eight years later the essence of what I had said to the police officer as I declined to press charges almost half a century earlier: “We’re not here to cause trouble. We’re here so that people will love each other.” That was how he put it. The impact we left was undeniable.

What Elwin Wilson did took courage. He could have simply made amends in his heart, but to publicly put aside his differences and admit his error is unique and bold. By doing this, he demonstrated so poignantly for all to see that love that opens its arms to help heal the pain of another’s suffering — not violence in self-defense — has the power to ultimately disarm the attacker, preserve his or her integrity, and enable the truth to do its work. Love that meets the separating action of violence with forgiveness affirms that our ultimate and eternal unity is transformative.