Laurens, South Carolina has a long history of racism, so people weren't surprised when Ku Klux Klan member John Howard Jr. opened the "Redneck Shop," a KKK museum, store and meeting place, in 1996.
As The Washington Post reported at the time, the shop sold KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia, including lynching photos, pins, T-shirts and hats. The Anti-Defamation League says several white supremacist groups, including the National Socialist Movement, once the country’s largest neo-Nazi organization, held meetings at the building.
Now, the Rev. David Kennedy, who leads the New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church, and Regan Freeman, a white man who grew up in Laurens County, have founded the Echo Project — named after the original theater segregated theater that the shop occupied — and hope to transform the shop into a symbol of diversity, NBC News reports.
“We started protesting heavily, and some of the young people wanted to burn the place down,” Kennedy said of the shop’s early days. “So this new place will be a place to encourage people. … We want to create an atmosphere where everyday people will feel the freedom to speak.”
Kennedy became friends with one of the shop’s owners, Michael Burden, who denounced the Klan and sold him the deed to the shop — a deed that Kennedy could only claim ownership of after Howard died in 2017.
"The road to the Echo Project has been long and rough, and not everyone in the area supports the venture," NBC News reports. "Freeman chalks that up to critics’ simply not wanting to acknowledge Laurens’ history. Kennedy and Freeman say the new center will move Laurens to reckon with its history, and they have vowed to prioritize the stories of Black residents who endured the discrimination and violence, Freeman said."