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.
“The shop closed in 2012 because a judge ruled that New Beginnings was the official owner of the Redneck Shop because of that deed the Klansman gave to Rev. Kennedy,” Freeman said. “And it was all because Kennedy.”
Telling the truth about history
Freeman grew up in Clinton, just 15 miles away from the notorious Redneck Shop, which he passed by frequently without questioning what went on behind its closed doors.
In 2018, while he was completing his last year at the University of South Carolina, Freeman began to wonder what the shop really was.
For months, he said he dug through records, photographs and archives from the past two decades, desperate to discover the truth behind the store that attracted hooded Klan members and Neo-Nazis for all those years.
Eventually he got his hands on piles of Howard’s belongings, which included posters of Adolf Hitler and a Klans business card they would give to Black families to scare them. The card said the KKK was making a social visit and warned them not to “make the next visit a business call.”
“What’s really horrifying is that what happened in that building isn’t even ancient news,” Freeman said. “The Redneck Shop was the meeting hall and recruitment center of the American Nazi party from 2007 to 2012, when the shop closed. The White supremacists that resided in this shop were promoting hatred and evil, things that bring to tears to my eyes just thinking about it, and it was all in the past decade or two.”
Now the executive director of the Echo Project, Freeman has raised over $375,000 from thousands of donors to begin renovating and transforming the former home of White supremacy and racism into a shrine of remembrance and reconciliation.
The museum will display artifacts from the Redneck Shop, and Howard’s belongings that Freeman uncovered. The center will also have classroom to engage with the community.
“You have to stand up for what is right regardless of what the consequences are, how long it takes, or who stands in your way,” Kennedy said. “We are warriors, full of love and full of forgiveness, but we will always fight, even if it means dying for our communities.”