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Saturday, December 10, 2016

A few words on the death of Elwin Wilson.

He passed last week in a South Carolina hospital at age 76. Wilson had endured heart and lung problems and had suffered a recent bout with the flu.

There is little reason you would know his name, but as a young man, Wilson made a virtual career out of hatefulness. He was a Klan supporter who burned crosses, hanged a black doll in a noose, once flung a jack handle at an African-American boy. In 1961, he was among a group of men who attacked a busload of Freedom Riders at a station in Rock Hill, SC.

In none of those things was he unique, so no, his name should ring no bells.

As it happens, Wilson’s passing coincides with a significant anniversary. It was 50 years ago today that 65 “Negroes” set out from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church and seated themselves at the lunch counters of five department stores. Rather than serve these customers, workers at four of the counters closed up shop. One store — Britt’s — called police and 21 demonstrators were hauled away.

It was the opening gambit of what became the signature moment of the Civil Rights Movement, that tumultuous spring when the world watched a town blast human flesh with high-pressure hoses capable of stripping tree bark, rather than allow Negroes to use public facilities. The protesters called it Project C, for confrontation. History knows it by the name of the Alabama town where it took place, a city so thoroughly segregated there was a law on the books banning blacks and whites from playing checkers together: Birmingham.

Though everyone has seen footage of the hoses and snarling dogs by which that city embarrassed itself in 1963, one suspects most of us know little about the rationale of the demonstrations, the reason the movement asked its people to accept such outrageous abuse without striking back.