Ex-South Carolina KKK museum to become a diversity center

The Echo Project, a group co-led by Rev. David Kennedy, wants the center to encourage people in Laurens, South Carolina

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A group with a mission to #RehabHate has launched a project to take a former Ku Klux Klan museum in South Carolina and convert it into a diversity center.

The Echo Project, based in the small town of Laurens in the northwest region of the state, is being led by Rev. David Kennedy, a native of Laurens, and Regan Freeman, a white man who grew up in Laurens County, according to NBC News.

The two are targeting the Redneck Shop, which shut down in 2012.

In this Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 photo, Rev. David Kennedy stands outside the Echo Theater holding a photo of his great uncle’s lynching, in Laurens, S.C. Kennedy has fought for civil rights in South Carolina for decades. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

“This new place will be a place to encourage people,” Kennedy told the outlet.

Kennedy knows Laurens and its racist history well. He said his great-great-uncle Richard Puckett was killed in 1913 in an act of racist violence. He said he lived in an apartment marked with a “C” for colored. As a youngster, when he went into a store to buy a collar for his dog, an employee asked if he needed one for himself, too.

Against that backdrop, the Redneck Shop opened in an old, segregated movie theater in 1996. The ex-theater’s marquee proclaimed “The World Only KKK museum,” the Washington Post wrote at the time, and it sold lynching photos among other racist memorabilia and became a meeting spot for racist groups like the Aryan Nation and American Nazi Party.

Kennedy and others in the community protested in front of the shop, and over time, he developed a relationship with Michael Burden, one of the owners. Burden would sell Kennedy the deed to the shop provided he didn’t claim ownership until after the Klan member who opened the business, John Howard Jr., died. He did in 2017, according to NBC.

In this Monday, Jan. 13, 2020 photo, Rev. David Kennedy looks at a faded mural of nazi and confederate flags painted inside what was once “The Redneck Shop.” His fight for civil rights is on display in the new film “Burden” in Laurens, S.C. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan)

A year later, a film titled Burden explored the Burden-Kennedy relationship.

Kennedy and Freeman hope to open the center sometime late in 2023, but before then, there’s a lot of work to do. For example, Vernon Burton, a historian and history professor at Clemson University, will help the project sort through the various documents and artifacts at the shop. A swastika on one of the walls needs to be removed. 

Despite the efforts, the city’s mayor wonders whether the project will be good for the community.

Mayor Nathan Senn said the old KKK museum, “was a place that welcomed people from all over the country who espoused views that were anti-American and hateful. So the publicity around the Echo Project itself has sort of reopened a wound that must be healed,” he told NBC.

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