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A grassroots organization is forcing a South Carolina city to reckon with its history of White supremacy -- a past some residents would rather leave buried.
Since 2019, the Echo Project has been working to convert the building that once housed "the world's only Klan museum" into a center for remembrance and reconciliation that will include a learning area and various exhibitions.
The Redneck Shop, located in a former segregated movie theater in Laurens, in upstate South Carolina, opened its doors in 1996. It sold and showcased a wide range of racist paraphernalia: spectral Ku Klux Klan robes, photographs of burning crosses, T-shirts that broadcast bigoted messages ("If I had known this was going to happen, I would have picked my own cotton"; "Save Our Land Join the Klan").
Until it closed in 2012, the store also operated as a hub where the Klan and the American Nazi Party would gather and recruit.
The Echo Project, founded by the New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church's Rev. David Kennedy, 68, and the burgeoning community organizer Regan Freeman, 25, wants to turn the now-empty building into a place that nurtures healing and reflects the value of the Black residents who had to put up with the cruelty incubated in the shop.
This month, the organization took a significant leap forward. It tapped two scholars -- Clemson University's Orville Vernon Burton and the University of South Carolina Upstate's Nicholas Gaffney -- to oversee an oral histories initiative that starts now and will capture the psychic wounds from the White supremacist orthodoxy that enjoyed a safe space in the store.
As Kennedy put it to CNN, "This has been a long journey, a difficult road. What we're doing is creating a place where people can feel their worth as human beings -- something that Black Americans have long been denied."
An unlikely pair
Born and raised in Laurens, Kennedy is intimately familiar with racial terror. In 1913, a White mob lynched his great-great-uncle, Richard Puckett, in the county. For some seven decades, the rope that had been used for the hanging was preserved, dangling from a railroad trestle as a warning to Black residents.
"We were taught never to take it down. If we did, the White people said that the same thing that happened to Richard Puckett would happen to us," Kennedy recalled.
Such experiences motivated Kennedy to embrace civil rights activism. When the Redneck Shop opened, the pastor didn't take it lying down. In fact, on the store's first day of business, he led between 400 and 500 people in a peaceful protest against it.
But soon, an unlikely friendship emerged between Kennedy and Michael Burden, a grand dragon for the South Carolina Klan and one of the Redneck Shop's founders. Within months of opening the store, Burden, prompted by his wife, repudiated the Klan. In consequence, John Howard, a Klansman and the Redneck Shop's proprietor, evicted Burden and his family from their apartment above the store. They were homeless.
One day, Burden ran into Kennedy and asked for help. The pastor treated Burden and his family to a meal and checked them into a motel. When Burden decided to cut his ties with the Redneck Shop, he sold the deed to Kennedy and his church. But a legal technicality allowed Howard to keep running the store. Howard did just that -- until Kennedy won a 15-year court battle that forced the shop to shutter.
(Andrew Heckler's 2018 movie "Burden," starring Forest Whitaker as Kennedy, recounts the development of the complicated relationship between Burden and Kennedy.)
The Echo Project was born out of a similarly unexpected partnership. In 2018, when Freeman, who is White, was an undergraduate student at the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, he watched a "60 Minutes" story on the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. A native of Clinton, a town southeast of Laurens, Freeman was stunned to learn about lynching in his home state and began to immerse himself in books and websites that taught him about South Carolina's history of racial violence.
Eventually, his research led him to the Redneck Shop -- and to Kennedy.
Freeman called Kennedy to express support for the pastor's effort to repurpose the former store. The next day, the two met for lunch. And the following year, they founded the Echo Project, named after the defunct segregated theater that housed the Redneck Shop. Freeman paused his plans for law school so that he could work full time with Kennedy.
Not everyone supports their work, though.
"Like many other places in South Carolina, Laurens still has a color line. Maybe it's not as obvious as it was in the '60s, but it's there, if you look," Freeman said. "There are people who don't want to bring up hate. They say, 'This makes the community look bad.'"
Indeed, as the Echo Project presses on, there's worry about how naysayers in Laurens might respond.
"When I hear this," Freeman said of the criticism that his work reflects poorly on the community, "my mind immediately goes to the first line of the (Tallahatchie County) apology to Emmett Till's family: 'Racial reconciliation begins with telling the truth.'"
How to develop an effective center for remembrance and reconciliation, especially when some don't think that it should exist at all?
According to Claire Greenstein, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of Alabama at Birmingham whose research focuses on reparations and transitional justice, people spearheading such an initiative ought to take a variety of factors into consideration. For instance: whether they're trying to change collective memory around an event; whether they're trying to honor victims; whether they're trying to point out perpetrators who've gone unpunished -- or some combination of these aims.
Greenstein noted that, whatever the goal, a blend of informational and experiential aspects can make a commemorative project quite effective -- and that earning community buy-in is key.
"The people who were negatively affected by a particular event should be involved. If a site reflects the people being honored and their wishes, you're much more likely to make an impact," Greenstein told CNN, adding that one way to achieve this goal is to amplify individual stories.
"People find it easier to have empathy for a specific individual. With individualized stories, observers find it easier to connect with the people who've been wronged and say, 'I see that this was wrong. What can I do to prevent it from happening again?'" Greenstein explained.
The Echo Project is taking this more granular approach to storytelling in collecting oral histories, a task that Orville Vernon Burton, a professor of history at Clemson University, is helping to lead.
Burton emphasized that this commemorative work matters because it's essential to record these stories, which illuminate just how persistent White supremacy remains.
"Black Americans in the former Confederacy lived in a terroristic society at least until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was signed into law," Burton said. "But then you also had the Redneck Shop, which glorified hate and showed what Black Americans had to deal with in rural areas in the '90s and on."
One way to view the Echo Project's insistence on telling the truth is through a poem dear to Kennedy: Paul Laurence Dunbar's "We Wear the Mask," published in 1895.
The poem shines a light on how, throughout the ages, Black Americans have had to conceal their true reactions to racial trauma: "We wear the mask that grins and lies / It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes / This debt we pay to human guile / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile," Dunbar wrote.
But not Kennedy. "I refuse to wear the mask," he said.