Wilson, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, died of heart failure Thursday in his home town of Rock Hill, the Rock Hill Herald reported. He is survived by his wife and son.
In 1961, Wilson beat up one of the 13 original Freedom Riders.
He hated blacks, beat them mercilessly and hurled racial epithets at them. He worked to keep his neighborhood segregated and hung a black baby doll from a tree -- and performed many other acts of bigotry, the Herald reported.
But when Barack Obama became president, Wilson began to apologize for his racism publicly and frankly, including on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and in 2009 in the Washington office of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.
Wilson became, within a year, a national symbol for reconciliation and hope.
"His story is a powerful story; his story must not be forgotten. His story and the way he arrived at his position must be understood, must be told," Lewis said.
On May 9, 1961, Lewis and his bus seatmate, a white man, walked into the whites-only waiting room at the Rock Hill bus station. A group of young white men jumped them and beat them up badly.
Of those men, only Wilson has apologized. Lewis said Wilson was encouraged by his son to make apologies.
Wilson "just came in and said he wanted to apologize. He wanted me to forgive him. He started crying ... and I started crying," Lewis said. "I told him I forgive him, and I didn't have any ill feelings."
Wilson and Wilson's son and Lewis then embraced.
Lewis and Wilson in 2009 accepted the Common Ground Award for Reconciliation in Washington, D.C. The same year in California, they were honored with awards on Worldwide Forgiveness Day.
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