Theater That Housed Former KKK Shop To Be Converted Into Diversity Center

Protest against Ku Klux Klan (KKK) members in Madison

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A Black preacher and a white man are leading the charge to convert a former meeting Ku Klux Klan meeting place and shop into a diversity center in South Carolina.

NBC News put the spotlight on Rev. David Kennedy and Regan Freeman, who are spearheading the Echo Project years after the controversial Redneck Shop closed years ago.

John Howard Jr., who eventually rose to the rank of grand dragon in the Klan, opened the Redneck Shop in an old segregated movie theater back in 1996. Located in the small South Carolina town of Laurens, the store used to house KKK gatherings and sold neo-Nazi and white supremacist memorabilia, according to reporters.

Supporters of the store argued that it was simply a place to preserve Southern heritage, even though notorious extremist and racist organizations would often meet there, including the American Nazi Party and the National Socialist Movement, once the country's largest neo-Nazi organization.

The Redneck Shop was pretty emblematic of Laurens' lengthy history of racism, lynchings, and disenfranchising its Black population. Kennedy says his own uncle, who was jailed and lynched for delivering a note to a white woman in 1913, was the subject of a photo that was sold in the store.

“A mob came and broke him out of jail, and they hung him up under a trestle,” Kennedy told reporters. “They shot his body up real bad. We would see that rope hanging every time we would go under the trestle, because it was the main entrance to the Black community. They said anybody who took that rope down, the same thing that happened to Richard Puckett would happen to them.”

Kennedy says he and Black residents would heavily protest the site to no avail, leading to frequent threats from the KKK. It wasn't until 2012 that the Redneck Shop would close after 16 years, a long and painful reminder of the "good ole days" of Jim Crow, segregation, and the oppression of Black people.

Things would start changing when Kennedy developed a relationship with Michael Burden, one of the owners of the shop who denounced the Klan. Burden sold the deed to the theater to Kennedy, who wouldn't gain complete control of the theater until Howard's death in 2017. Their relationship was also the subject of a 2020 documentary.

Now Kennedy, a 68-year-old leader of New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church, has teamed up with Freeman to transform the symbol of hate into a place of healing, awareness, and diversity.

Freeman, a white man who grew up in Laurens County, learned about the awful history of racism in his own state and was moved to make a change.

“I think it’s crazy looking back now — the Redneck shop was open 15 miles from my house. I think a lot of people don’t understand the depth of what they were doing in that building,” Freeman said. “They were promoting nationwide and worldwide antisemitic and incredibly evil and racist organizations and materials.”

The new diversity center aims to reckon with Laurens' history, provide stories of discrimination and violence from Black residents, and facilitate reconciliation. Freeman says a museum is also in the cards.

Reporters say the road to the Echo Project has been fraught with obstacles, however. For starters, some critics are not on board with the project; Freeman claims they simply don't want to acknowledge the town's virulent past. They also have to tidy up the building, which reportedly has a large swastika painted on one of the walls. Then, there are Black residents who still feel uncomfortable with the space, despite Freeman and Kennedy's intentions.

"What we are hoping that this will change is that this becomes a place that says we need to study these things, learn from them, get rid of hate and confront," Burton explains. "So we can somehow move together as a society. I have great hope for it. It’s not going to be an easy thing. But what Reverend Kennedy did wasn’t easy, either."

You can read more about this HERE.

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