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50 Years Later, A Civil Rights Tribute ... And Apology

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50 Years Later, A Civil Rights Tribute ... And Apology


50 Years Later, A Civil Rights Tribute ... And Apology

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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(Soundbite of music)


Fifty years ago this week, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, was founded. The students behind it were called the shock troops of the civil rights movement. They were often in the middle of protests that ended in brutality.

This week, members of the group gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina, for a reunion, and NPR's Kathy Lohr was there.

KATHY LOHR: Hundreds of civil rights veterans, black and white, are gathered at Shaw University in Raleigh to commemorate SNCC this week. As they waited for the opening session to begin, the crowd started singing an anthem from their youth.

(Soundbite of crowd singing and applauding)

LOHR: They've come to celebrate and they say to inspire others. Julian Bond, one of the group's founders, began leading demonstrations in Atlanta in 1960.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman Emeritus, NAACP): What began 50 years ago is not just history. It was part of a mighty movement that started many, many years before that and that continues on to this day: Ordinary women, ordinary men proving they can perform extraordinary tasks in the pursuit of freedom.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

LOHR: Back in April 1960, when the students first came together, lunch counters, libraries and public transportation were segregated. So-called freedom riders came to the South to confront discrimination.

As SNCC members recall their civil rights campaigns, 73-year-old Elwin Wilson sits in his living room in neighboring Rock Hill, South Carolina. He also recalls the protests. But he was on the other side back then. In 1961, Wilson was angry and waiting when civil rights activist John Lewis, then 21 years old, got off a bus in this small southern city.

Mr. ELWIN WILSON (Former Member, Ku Klux Klan): Well, the bus pulled in. He got out and he started over to the door.

LOHR: The former Klan member, who is in poor health, says he started beating Lewis as he opened the door to a whites-only waiting room.

Mr. WILSON: I remember him laying there, and it was blood all over the ground and police - somebody had done called the police.

LOHR: Wilson ultimately realized the protester he had attacked was now Democratic Congressman John Lewis. Last year, Wilson finally apologized in person.

Lewis later described the meeting this way.

Representative JOHN LEWIS (Democrat, Georgia): And I said to him, I forgive you. I don't have any ill feelings, any bitterness, any malice. He gave me a hug. I hugged him back. He cried a little and I cried.

LOHR: Wilson says he found the Lord and realized he was wrong.

Mr. WILSON: If I can just get one person not to hate, it's worth it.

LOHR: Congressman Lewis says it was a powerful meeting that shows racial attitudes can change.

Rep. LEWIS: Well, it was a moment of grace, a moment of forgiveness and a moment of reconciliation. And that's what the movement, that's what the struggle was all about.

LOHR: Some in Rock Hill had hoped more people would come forward to offer apologies, including president of the local NAACP chapter Melvin Poole.

Mr. MELVIN POOLE (President, Rock Hill Chapter, NAACP): Keep in mind that Mr. Wilson is not the only one of the hecklers who were present then who are still in Rock Hill. But he's the only one who has publicly and privately came forward to apologize.

LOHR: These are the kinds of struggles that those gathering in Raleigh are looking back on this week, and they're also looking forward to what many say are the civil rights challenges that still exist.

Timothy Jenkins is a founding member of the group.

Mr. TIMOTHY JENKINS (Founding Member, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee): This requires that even with our gray hair, we shall remain radical enough to insist on ceaseless action until the abuses are addressed and eliminated, that moved us for a decade to nonviolently raise hell.

LOHR: This weekend, these leaders are attempting to reach a new generation who they hope will take up the struggle.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Raleigh.

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