For three years, the West Metro NAACP chapter led the fight to free the 20-year-old after he was sentenced to 10 years in prison on felony charges for having sex with an underage girl at a party, an incident that was videotaped. Mr. Wilson refused to accept a plea deal that would have required him to register as a sex offender.
"Free Genarlow" became a rallying cry across the country as some cited him as an example of racial disparities in the criminal justice system. The Georgia Supreme Court freed Mr. Wilson on Oct. 26 on a 4-3 decision that called his sentence "cruel and unusual punishment."
He is the latest young black man to blur the lines between being a cause celebre and someone worthy of being lionized. Mr. Wilson, the Jena Six in Louisiana and Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick have not only drawn support but also praise from many in the black community who seem willing to overlook their offenses for the bigger picture.
Nationally syndicated radio host Warren Ballentine, who has used his show to speak out against what he considers racial injustices called the award "a wonderful thing."
"We're not awarding him for the video," said Mr. Ballentine, the keynote speaker at Saturday's National Association for the Advancement of Colored People fundraiser. "We're awarding him for fighting."
Still, the attention is sparking a debate.
"I admire that he stood his ground," said Cassandra Dillard, who was in the audience. "He made a mistake. But I don't know what he has done that warrants an award."
Mr. Wilson acknowledged that the accolades are a bit awkward.
"I really wasn't trying to be a hero," he said Saturday before accepting the chapter's first Staying the Course Youth Award. "I was just trying to do what was right."
Some in the black community might be ignoring such wrongs out of frustration, said Jeff Johnson, an activist and former national youth director of the NAACP.
"I don't think that it is an intentional negligence on our part," he said. "It is an optimistic desire to be able to stick it to a justice system that has stuck it to us for so long. But we can't do that at the cost of justifying behavior that we know is unacceptable. What we've got to be able to do is get to the point where we can hold everybody accountable at the same time."
Mr. Johnson said it is important to continue to support Mr. Wilson, and to track him also.
"When he graduates (from college), then give him an award for perseverance," he said.
"He's still got a whole lot to prove before we start putting him on the level of heroes and 'sheroes' who have actually sacrificed themselves in the quest to maintain integrity, as opposed to defending themselves in the midst of injustice."