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Rock Hill Civil Rights Anniversary

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ROCK HILL, SC (WBTV) - In the spring of 1961, a small group of crusaders made up of blacks and whites  set out to change the world.

They were the Freedom Riders, and there were 13 of them. They planned a two week trek from the nation's capital. They would take two buses through the Deep South.

From D.C. to New Orleans, stopping in Rock Hill and other cities along the way. They challenged Jim Crow's travel rules.

The group put up with divided buses, separate waiting depots, and race based restrooms. Their cause turned into a national movement.

However, the freedom riders were met with violence, 50 years ago.

Elwin Wilson has had a change of heart

"I feel like I did have burden or whatever you want to call it on my shoulders," he said.

Wilson wrestles with what he did to African Americans in this town when they were trying to get a fair shake.

Four years before John Lewis was bludgeoned in Selma, Alabama, the civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman took a beating from Wilson in the streets on Rock Hill during the first days of the Freedom Rides.

In a very separate and unequal society, Lewis turned the other cheek.

"Do want to sign a warrant against this man?" Wilson recalls. "He said no .He said we're traveling through here to get people to love each other."

This week students from across the country rolled through Charlotte retracing the steps of Lewis and other Freedom Riders.

The tour is part of PBS's American Experience series.

Their destination Rock Hill's Old Town Bistro, once a spot of conflict and chaos during its days as a five and dime lunch counter.

Joan Mulholland of Arlington, Virginia is traveling with the group.

She was arrested as a sit-in protestor here in 1961, and reflects on her days of youthful courage.

"The fear gets in the way of doing it and doing it well. The fear goes and the faith comes," she said.

Rock Hill has changed. The city now has a black police chief, state representative, and city council member, but there's still some sting of the past.

David Williamson took us back to the spot where Congressman Lewis was beaten. It is now a downtown parking lot.

"We didn't know who got beat up. They didn't tell us anything."

Williamson recalls few headlines.

He and his fellow Friendship Nine survivors are also being celebrated on this anniversary for spending 30 days on a chain gang and pioneering the Jail No Bail concept for being locked up at local lunch counters.

While history was made in Rock Hill time is teaching public forgiveness.

John Lewis and Elwin Wilson are going the distance with their widely noted lessons of personal redemption  from halls of congress and most recently to the Oprah show.

"I know now and I should have known then that it was wrong," Wilson said.

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