Klansman’s apology rings hollow

by Jim Longworth

Today’s news media are suckers for feelgood stories. Last week we were treated to two of them. First, there was the dog that fell overboard from its master’s boat then managed to swim five miles to an island, and was later reunited with his family. Then there was the precious story about a lovable 72-year-old Ku Klux Klansman who, after 45 years, was reunited with one of the victims of his racist violence. As far as I’m concerned, the wrong dog fell overboard. Unbelievably, Elwin Wilson has become a media darling, much like Joe the Plumber, except that Joe never savagely beat black people. Nevertheless, good old Elwin made a trip to Washington DC to visit with Congressman John Lewis, and apologized for his Klan activities, which included smashing Lewis’ face during a 1961 Freedom Ride. ABC’s “Good Morning America” was there to chronicle the landmark meeting, and so were journalists from throughout the country who wrote of Wilson in heroic terms. Pardon me for a moment while I throw up. Hey folks, this is the guy who hung a black doll from his driveway to intimidate African Americans. He also brutally beat a seminary student, routinely threw cantaloupes at passing black children and severely injured a little African-American child with a jack handle. So why the hell is everyone buying into Wilson’s high-profile apology? Perhaps because we are living in the Age of Obama, where some African Americans believe it’s okay to turn the other cheek when it comes to past violence by whites. But one black legislator told me privately that apologies such as Wilson’s are merely cosmetic. In his mind, they are neither genuine nor substantive. I’m also surprised that we as a nation, and the media in particular, have such short memories, because we’ve seen it all before.’ 

After a lifetime of spewing hate speech and defying federal court orders to integrate his state’s schools, Alabama Gov. George Wallace finally made peace with those he had treated so badly. It didn’t hurt his cause any that he had been the victim of an assassin’s bullet while once running for presidency, so his wheelchair-bound apology gained him sympathy among black voters, many of whom supported his bid for another term as governor. Wallace is the man who once proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” His fiery rhetoric sparked violence, including the bombing of the 16 th Street Baptist church in Birmingham, which killed four little black girls. It’s no wonder that, in 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King referred to Wallace as “the most dangerous racist in America.” Even John Lewis, the man who recently forgave Elwin Wilson, said of Wallace, “George Wallace never threw a bomb. He never fired a gun. But he created the climate and

the conditions thatencouraged vicious attacks against innocent Americans who were simplytrying to exercise their Constitutional rights.” Sen. StromThurmond was also dangerous. In 1948 when President Truman was on theverge of moving the nation toward integration, Thurmond ran as athird-party candidate under the Dixiecrat banner. Though he lost theelection, he accomplished his goal, which was to forestall the civilrights movement. Thurmond’s hold over Southern legislatorshamstrung Congress and the President for nearly two more decades. Timelost. Lives lost. Thanks Strom. And thanks for softening yourimage on race relations when you reached your eighties and nineties.You became the poster child for good-old-boy contrition, and the mediabought into your act. And then there was Sen. Robert Byrd who waiteduntil he was old and entrenched in power to apologize for his supportof the Klan. Said Byrd: “I know now I was wrong. Intolerance had noplace in America. I can’t erase what happened.” That’s true, you jerk,but you could have come clean about your past, and then resigned fromthe Senate. That would have been an apology of substance. Instead, you orchestrated an atonement that helped you get re-elected, and endeared you to the Washington press corps. Andthat brings us back to the esteemed Elwin Wilson. During last week’smedia circus, Wilson explained his racist acts of violence, by saying,“I guess it was just the crowd I ran with.” The crowd? Wilson was agrown man when he was beating up on defenseless children, not someteenager who liked to roll the neighbor’s yard at Halloween. Trueenough, Wilson was born into hate. His grandfather, father, and brotherwere all active in the KKK, but that still doesn’t excuse him fromhaving made bad choices. Some things a man just knows are wrong, andthrowing jack handles at children is wrong at any age, on any planet,in any era. Still, Congressman Lewis and other African Americansaccepted Wilson’s better-late-than-never apology. Men like Lewis arerare. I just couldn’t be that generous with my forgiveness. Irecall interviewing Darryl Hunt shortly after he was released fromprison after having served nearly 20 years for a crime he didn’tcommit. I told him that if I were he, I would be filled with hate forthe whites who rushed to judgment. But Darryl explained thathe had found God and was blessed with the love of a good woman. He wasat peace with those who had perpetrated his wrongful arrest,prosecution and incarceration. Darryl accepted monetary reparations,but he also accepted some cosmetic apologies. I would haveaccepted the former and rejected the latter. Following his savagebeating at the hands of the Los Angeles police, Rodney King asked thepublic: “Can’t we all just get along?” I’m sure that’s why Darryl Huntdidn’t go on a shooting spree following his release from prison. AndI’m sure that’s why John Lewis accepted Elwin Wilson’s disgustingoverture.

So ifbrave black men like Hunt and Lewis are too diplomatic to say the rightthing, let me say something for them, and on behalf of Southern whitemales who despise racism. To you Thurmonds, Byrds, Wallaces and Wilsonsof the world, let me just say from the bottom of my heart: “Screw youguys and the horses you rode in on!” My words for the media are almostas harsh. You guys who make sympathetic characters out of old racistcrackers, are irresponsible, and I’m ashamed to share the sameprofession with you. Stick to glorifying dogs that swim back to theirfamilies, and resist the urge to do human interest stories about menwho are anything but human.

JimLongworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m.on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cablechannel 15).