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Former Klansman who apologized for racist past dies

By Dana Ford, CNN
updated 5:41 AM EDT, Mon April 1, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Elwin Wilson apologized for beating Rep. John Lewis at a bus station some 50 years ago
  • He died Thursday at a hospital in South Carolina
  • Wilson is survived by his wife, a son, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild

(CNN) -- He'd said his daddy always told him that a fool never changes his mind. And Elwin Wilson didn't want to be a fool.

Wilson, a former Ku Klux Klan member who apologized for his racist past and specifically for beating a black man who went on to become a U.S. congressman, has died. He was 76.

Wilson came to national attention when he publicly apologized to Georgia Rep. John Lewis. He and his friends attacked Lewis at a bus station in South Carolina some 50 years ago.

"My daddy always told me that a fool never changes his mind, and a smart man changes his mind. And that's what I've done, and I'm not ashamed of it," Wilson told CNN's Don Lemon in 2009.

"I feel like I'm apologizing to the world right now."

Lewis, who appeared on the same show, said he forgave Wilson.

"It is very much in keeping with the philosophy and the discipline of nonviolence, to have the ability, the capacity, to say I'm sorry, forgive me, and the person that received the attack will say you're forgiven. Because hate is too heavy a burden to bear," Lewis told Lemon.

He said that Wilson was the first and only person who had attacked him and apologized for it.

"Maybe Mr. Wilson will inspire others to come forth," Lewis said.

Wilson died Thursday at Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, South Carolina. He was a native of Gaston County, North Carolina, and a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, according to an obituary on a funeral home website.

Wilson loved to collect antiques, especially clocks. He is survived by his wife, a son, two grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

The cause of his death was not immediately clear.

"He was a good man," said Christopher Hope Wilson Sr., Wilson's son.

Funeral services are scheduled for Monday.

CNN's Chandler Friedman contributed to this report.

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