A South Carolina preacher and local resident are turning what once was a Ku Klux Klan meeting place into a community center dedicated to educating and fighting against racial injustice.
Deep in Laurens stands the historic Echo Theater, perched in between diners and cafes bustling with customers and ’50s music that can be heard from the street.
But that building carries a history much darker than the cheerful life that surrounds it.
In 1996, the once segregated movie theater became home to the Redneck Shop, a White supremacist store that sold White nationalist and neo-Nazi paraphernalia, Klans robes and Confederate memorabilia up until its forced closure in 2012.
Owned by KKK members John Howard and Michael Burden, the building also became the self-proclaimed “World’s Only Klan Museum” and the meeting spot for several white nationalist groups, including the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Now, the theater is being renovated by the Echo Project, an organization founded in 2019 by Laurens-area resident Regan Freeman and local Black preacher, Rev. David Kennedy. The organization plans to turn the theater into a community center and racial reconciliation museum.
“We don’t want to just have a museum to tell this story, the struggle for justice, and the fight against the Klan, but we also want to detail what happened here to make sure it never happens again,” Freeman told CNN.
“The Echo Theater went from being a segregated movie theater to a literal Klan’s store to being in the possession of a Black minister, and it is about to become a place for reconciliation, justice, and healing.”
An unlikely alliance
When the Redneck Shop opened, Kennedy, the leader of the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church, chose to stand against the KKK and demand for the store to be closed.
“To be a Black person in America, I have too many stories to share that people wouldn’t believe,” Kennedy, 67, told CNN. “Once you choose to speak out, people become fearful of us, and you have to be ready to sacrifice your mind, your heart, your soul, to tell the truth about history and what they did to our people. I was ready to make that sacrifice.”
When Kennedy began his fight against the Redneck Shop, the preacher became a target by the KKK, who considered killing him for a period of time.
But when Howard and Burden had a falling out, Kennedy said he protected Burden, even though he was a Klansman, by providing him and his family with food, shelter, a place to worship.
And so an unexpected friendship was born — and their story was made into a 2018 film called “Burden.”
However, Burden’s agreement required that Howard would be allowed to run the Redneck Shop until he died — a deal Kennedy fought in the courts for 15 years.
Read the full story at: cnn.com