Elwin Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan member who in the twilight of his life publicly denounced racism and apologized for engaging in multiple violent racist acts decades earlier, died Thursday of heart failure. He was 76.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press last week, Wilson's wife Judy said her husband had long sought to make amends for his racist past.
"He said he had it on his heart for a long time," Judy Wilson said. "He said he wished he could find the ones he mistreated and apologize to them all."
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Following the inauguration of President Barack Obama, Wilson contacted South Carolina's The Herald
newspaper in January of 2009, where he recounted and apologized for his past violent acts against black Americans.
While in the KKK, Wilson had reportedly participated in cross burnings, thrown eggs and cantaloupes at black men passing through his neighborhood and taken part in the beating of Georgia Congressman John Lewis when he was a civil rights activist in the 1960s.
"All I can say is that it has bothered me for years, all the bad stuff I've done." Wilson said in a subsequent interview with the AP. "And I found out there is no way I could be saved and get to heaven and still not like blacks."
At the age of 72, Wilson reached out to Lewis and apologized for his behavior decades earlier.
"He was the very, very first to come and apologize to me," Lewis told the Herald for its obituary of Wilson. "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 . . . His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told."
In 2009, Wilson and Lewis received the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation. Two years later the pair appeared together with Oprah Winfrey on her show to discuss their shared history.
Prior to his conversion, Wilson had worked tirelessly for most of his adult life to ensure that black Americans could did not move into his neighborhood through intimidation reports the Herald.
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In addition to yelling racial epithets at blacks who considered moving into his neighborhood, Wilson at one point even hung a black baby doll from noose in a tree in his front yard, the newspaper reported.
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