1961 May 9

Freedom Rider John Lewis Beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina


Freedom Rider John Lewis was savagely beaten in Rock Hill, South Carolina, on this day, when the Freedom Ride, which began on May 4, 1961, stopped in the city. His assailant was a KKK member named Elwin Wilson. It would not be the last time Lewis was beaten for his civil rights activity. He was beaten again as a Freedom Rider on May 20th, in Montgomery, Alabama. (See the apology he received fifty-two years later from the then-police chief on March 2, 2013.)

And in the famous “Bloody Sunday” on March 7, 1965, he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and Selma police as he attempted to lead a voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The events of “Bloody Sunday” outraged public opinion in the U.S. and around the world, and led to the historic Voting Rights Act, which President Lyndon Johnson signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Years later, on January 21, 2008, Lewis returned to Rock Hill, the scene of the first beating, and reconciled with Elwin Wilson, who had beaten him 47 years earlier. Wilson died in 2013. At that time, Lewis was a senior and distinguished member of Congress, having been elected to the House of Representatives in 1986.

The 1961 Freedom Ride was one of the most dramatic events of the civil rights movement. Pictures of the violence, including both savagely beaten Freedom Riders and a burning bus in Anniston, Alabama, on May 14, 1961 aroused public opinion across the country and around the world.

Read his story: John Lewis, Walking With the Wind: A Memoir of the Movement (1998)

Watch a news story on the 2008 reconciliation: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y77fUFUfk9I

Read about the Freedom Ride: Ray Arsenault, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice (2006)

Go to Rep. John Lewis’ Congressional Home Page here.

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