Maurice Bessinger was a defiant racist to his last breath, but Rock Hill’s Elwin Wilson and the Friendship Nine proved that racism can be forgiven.
A South Carolina symbol of racism and hate is dead.
Maurice Bessinger claimed that slavery was good for black people, that whites were superior to blacks and that the white race should be kept pure.
Bessinger defiantly flew the Confederate battle flag over his Columbia-area Maurice’s BBQ joints. He handed out pamphlets that claimed slavery was great. He refused to serve blacks in his restaurants. He used Christianity to rationalize segregation and slavery.
Bessinger’s life stood as testament to the cancer of America that never died in some whites – hatred and fear of blacks.
Bessinger believed the races must be kept separate because blacks are less than people. He believed that slaves, who were beaten or killed for learning to read or presuming to be human, were treated well.
In 2014, that is obviously preposterous. In 1961, it was the law.
“This was a man who at least you could see coming,” said Willie McCleod, who has lived in Rock Hill and South Carolina all of his 71 years, except when he was serving in the Army. “He believed that stuff his whole life. He was wrong. Period.
“He was like so many people who tried to use scripture...my Bible of God, to teach segregation and say that slavery was right. Racism was spread through people like him, from pulpits and in churches. They indoctrinated people with their racism. But at least you could see him and his hate coming. His hate didn’t sneak up on you.”
McCleod is not just any old black black man who grew up the South.
In February 1961, an 18-year-old McCleod and eight other young black men spent a month in the York County prison farm to protest segregation. On this very day 53 years ago, McCleod was on a hunger strike and in solitary confinement, after three weeks of back-breaking work on that farm.
Those men, eight students at Friendship Junior College and a civil rights activist, will forever be known as the Friendship Nine. Each was convicted of trespassing at a whites-only lunch counter in Rock Hill, and instead of paying the fine chose jail to prove that racism was wrong.
The “Jail, No Bail” movement that changed America forever was born right here in Rock Hill – which for a few years was home to a Maurice’s BBQ, out near the Rock Hill Galleria.
“Racism – then and now – is taught,” McCleod said. “It is not passed on from generation to generation. It is something people teach their children, or that people learn from others who hate.
“It is not a sickness of the blood, but a disease of the spirit and mind.”
Bessinger, McCleod said, “believed he was right,” in endorsing racism his whole life.
But not everyone who beat up and taunted blacks and burned crosses died with that hate.
Rock Hill’s Elwin Wilson died last year at 76, his heart cleared of hate. He earned a smile that will last through eternity.
In 2009 – after reading in The Herald about the heroics of civil rights pioneers in Rock Hill, after watching the swearing-in of President Barack Obama, the first black American president – Wilson unloaded his hate.
“I need to tell some people I am sorry,” were the first words Elwin Wilson spoke to me – words that started an avalanche that reached around the globe. “I hated blacks, and I was wrong.”
Wilson apologized for his past as a Ku Klux Klansman and for beating up McCleod and the other protesters. He apologized for the May 9, 1961, beating of two protesters at Rock Hill’s bus station. One of those protesters, John Lewis, would later became a congressman from Georgia.
Wilson asked McCleod and he asked Lewis for forgiveness and both men said absolutely, they did forgive him. Racism was the enemy, not the man who had been taught to hate. Wilson apologized for hating the first black neighbors he had, and everyone else with dark skin he came across, for almost seven decades.
In a few weeks, a children’s book about the Friendship Nine will be published. It will teach that hating blacks was wrong and standing up against racism is right. It is a book about courage to change the world, courage shown by people such as Willie McCleod.
Like the Friendship Nine changed America, Elwin Wilson changed America. He remains the only person to apologize for personally beating Lewis and others, for a lifetime of hatred. Nobody else in Rock Hill, much less Maurice Bessinger, ever had the guts to say that participating in a life of hating blacks was wrong.
Wilson was honored across the country with awards and commendations. He embraced Lewis, and Lewis cried and said, “Mr. Wilson, I am honored to call you my friend.”
McCleod also embraced Wilson after he apologized. The men shook hands that day in January 2009, and that courage of both men will remain in Rock Hill and South Carolina and America forever.
What started in this newspaper with Wilson’s apology to local protesters became proof that racism could be excised not with a scalpel, but with the magic powers of the human heart.
Wilson, a changed man, became my friend. We talked at least every week. I went to his house many times. Wilson was sick at the end.
His last words to me were, “I did what was right.”
Elwin Wilson died three days later. He will be remembered forever – as will Willie McCleod and the other men and women associated with the Friendship Nine – for his courage.
Maurice Bessinger died this week. Nobody will ever use the word “courage” to describe him.