The Rev. David Kennedy plans to turn the for­mer Red­neck Shop into a di­ver­sity cen­ter in Lau­rens

The State (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY LU­CAS DAPRILE [email protected]­

The Echo Theater is a mess. Glass from bro­ken win­dows, plas­tic bot­tles and smashed pickle jars glis­ten on the floor. A red, plas­tic table­cloth that once cov­ered ta­bles dur­ing neo-nazi meet­ings lays crum­pled on a dust-cov­ered ta­ble in the corner. Wood let­ters spell­ing out “Red­neck Shop” lay faded and cracked on a couna ter.

None of the lights work and the win­dows are boarded up. The Rev. David Kennedy must nav­i­gate the build­ing with the flash­light from a cell­phone. “Watch that hole there,” he says, point­ing to a gap in the wood floor­ing about the size of din­ner plate.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, The Red­neck Shop, lo­cated in the mid­dle of down­town Lau­rens, gained na­tional no­to­ri­ety as a racist gift shop/ catch-all hub for far-right hate groups. Now that the build­ing lies derelict, Kennedy, the black pas­tor who now owns the build­ing, dreams of turn­ing it into a di­ver­sity cen­ter.

But as a brief tour makes clear, if Kennedy ever wants to trans­form this build­ing, which was orig­i­nally a seg­re­gated theater, into some­thing pos­i­tive, he has a long way to go.

“I al­ways have this hope that one day the world will be so di­verse that ev­ery­body will be ap­pre­ci­ated and re­spected and the things that hap­pened in

Pitts­burgh won’t be hap­pen­ing any­more, and these young black kids who are be­ing killed, and what hap­pened in Charleston won’t be hap­pen­ing any­more...peo­ple (are) just go­ing to have a good time to en­joy the mu­sic,” said Kennedy, a pas­tor at New Be­gin­ning Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in Lau­rens, SC.

In a county named af­ter a prom­i­nent slave trader, Kennedy has long been a pro­po­nent for em­pow­er­ing the lo­cal black com­mu­nity and shut­ter­ing the Red­neck Shop. In 1996, he promised “a long, hot sum­mer” of protests against the store’s sell­ing Klan and con­fed­er­ate items, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports. Kennedy’s protests were peace­ful, but not ev­ery­one’s were. In 1996, a man re­peat­edly rammed his van into the front of the Red­neck Shop, then got out, climbed atop his van and be­gan beat­ing the sign out front that said “the world’s only Klan mu­seum,” ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

Af­ter years of un­rest over the prop­erty, Kennedy said he wants to use it to bring peo­ple to­gether.

“An­other sin that’s never been truly talked about: poor whites,” Kennedy said. “Be­cause if you learn about them, you also learn about how the elite ed­u­cated them to hate so they could never be chal­lenged...but I do think that (for) each race, the truth needs to be told.”

For years, the Red­neck Shop told sto­ries about race through sym­bols: a swastika with Adolf Hitler’s face painted on the back wall (it’s faded but still vis­i­ble), the con­fed­er­ate flags on the mar­quee cov­ered by blank let­ter cards (though they were still vis­i­ble) and Ku Klux Klan robes for sale in­side, cour­tesy of the for­mer op­er­a­tor, John Howard, who openly bragged about be­ing a long-time mem­ber (A Klan mem­ber­ship card was still ly­ing around the theater).

Kennedy came to own the build­ing af­ter KKK mem­ber Michael Bur­den fell in love with a woman who was a for­mer Klan mem­ber, and who con­vinced him to leave the KKK. Bur­den, who was liv­ing in the Red­neck Shop, now had nowhere to go, so Kennedy took him in. The two be­came friends and Bur­den, who pre­vi­ously owned the Red­neck Shop, gave Kennedy the Echo Theater.

The two formed a last­ing friend­ship. But Bur­den hid a hor­ri­ble se­cret that he wanted to take to his grave. His girl­friend de­manded he con­fess to Kennedy, say­ing she wouldn’t marry him if he didn’t.

So Bur­den told Kennedy that one day, when the rev­erend was walk­ing down West Lau­rens Street, Bur­den stood watch­ing from a bal­cony on the Echo Theater. Bur­den held a gun, fin­ger on the trig­ger, Kennedy said.

“His plans were to as­sas­si­nate me,” Kennedy said. “He had his pis­tol drawn on me twice to take me out. And I was at those places he named...and he said that he wasn’t able to do it.”

Kennedy knew the Klan was ca­pa­ble of killing him: Kennedy’s un­cle was lynched in Lau­rens County.

“I’ve been asked over and over again whether I re­gret what I did. I said no,” Kennedy said. “I’m in(to) king­dom build­ing, I rep­re­sent Je­sus. I fight hard against the Klan and hate groups, but I never al­low it to move me into a state of ha­tred be­cause then we have de­feated the cause.”

If that story sounds like some­thing out of a movie, it is. Bur­den, which pre­miered at the Sun­dance Film Fes­ti­val in Jan­uary and won an au­di­ence choice award, is based on Michael Bur­den re­ject­ing the KKK and on Kennedy, played by For­est Whi­taker, tak­ing him in. The real-life Kennedy even has a cameo in the movie, do­ing his sig­na­ture “pump, pump it up” chant.

But be­fore the Echo Theater can cash in its sto­ry­book end­ing, there’s a lot to be done.

Be­fore they can set up an af­ford­able af­ter-school pro­gram for stu­dents, or put a cafe in the front, or open it up to com­mu­nity events as Lau­rens Mayor John Stankus would like to see, they have to get the build­ing, which has sat derelict for five years, into work­ing con­di­tion.

Be­tween re­pair­ing the roof, fix­ing ter­mite and wa­ter dam­age, re­plac­ing the light­ing and just gen­er­ally get­ting the build­ing up to code, a con­trac­tor es­ti­mated the Echo Theater will need roughly $500,000 to re­pair, said Re­gan Free­man, a Univer­sity of South Carolina stu­dent and Clin­ton na­tive who has been work­ing with Kennedy to re­vi­tal­ize the Echo Theater.

“It’s very much a phase one of do­ing those two things: start­ing the fundrais­ing, get­ting the word out for all of this,” Free­man said when asked about what the fi­nal prod­uct would be. “And it’s such a weird ques­tion to an­swer be­cause it’s like try­ing to build a cas­tle and a foun­da­tion at the same time.”

Free­man, whom USC stu­dents might rec­og­nize from his satir­i­cal French Drink­ing Ticket twit­ter ac­count, said he took point on the pro­ject af­ter see­ing a 60 Min­utes spe­cial on the Na­tional Mon­u­ment for Peace in Jus­tice, some­times re­ferred to as the Na­tional Lynch­ing Me­mo­rial.

“Any­thing is bet­ter than what’s there now,” Free­man said.

Stankus, the mayor of Lau­rens, agrees.

“We wish Rev. Kennedy and the groups do­ing this a lot of suc­cess,” Stankus said. “It would help re­vi­tal­ize the down­town area.”

Re­gan is not the only USC con­nec­tion to the pro­ject. Jen­nifer H. Gunter, the di­rec­tor of the SC Col­lab­o­ra­tive for Race and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion, has also joined the ef­fort. The col­lab­o­ra­tive was founded af­ter the 2015 mas­sacre of nine black mem­bers of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston by a white su­prem­a­cist. It runs a pro­gram called The Wel­come Ta­ble that brings peo­ple to­gether from dif­fer­ent back­grounds and tries to get them to un­der­stand each other bet­ter.

As for her role at the Echo Theater, Gunter said she is just here to help.

“Ul­ti­mately, what I hope to bring is (what­ever) they ask for,” Gunter said. “I can find peo­ple who can raise money, do ren­o­va­tions.”

As for what the di­ver­sity cen­ter will be called, Kennedy and Free­man aren’t sure.

“It has sort of told sto­ries. It’s sort of the tagline we’re run­ning with,” Free­man said. “It told films, and then it told the worst story imag­in­able. And this man, here, helped change that. It’s his story. His church has the deed to the prop­erty, and we get the chance to tell that next chap­ter. There are decades, if not cen­turies, of his­tory here.”



GAVIN MCIN­TYRE gm­cin­[email protected]­

The Rev. David Kennedy stands in front of the closed Red­neck Shop Fri­day in Lau­rens. Kennedy hopes to trans­form the space to ben­e­fit the com­mu­nity. The Red­neck Shop once sold KKK robes and swastikas and hosted neo-nazi meet­ings be­fore clos­ing in the early 2000s.

PHO­TOS BY GAVIN MCIN­TYRE gm­cin­[email protected]­

The Rev. David Kennedy, a pas­tor at New Be­gin­ning Mis­sion­ary Bap­tist Church in Lau­rens, looks through the front door of the closed Red­neck Shop on Fri­day. The Echo Theater be­gan life as a seg­re­gated theater, but Kennedy be­lieves the build­ing can be used to bring the com­mu­nity to­gether.

Up­dat­ing the build­ing won’t be easy or cheap. Kennedy will need about $500,000 to re­pair the roof, fix ter­mite and wa­ter dam­age, and re­place light­ing to get the build­ing up to code.

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