In this, Jan. 13, 2020 file 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, File)
By JEFFREY COLLINS, Associated Press
LAURENS. S.C. (AP) — Regan Freeman had spent more than a year organizing a project to tell the story of a Black South Carolina pastor who reached out to Ku Klux Klan members who wanted him dead because of his race.
Freeman thought he knew the story well. Then came a tweet that led to two gray storage tubs of some of the most racist newspapers, flyers, posters, photographs and other material he had ever seen.
That brought Rev. David Kennedy’s struggles as well as his patience, love and caring for all men — even those with evil in their hearts — into sharper focus for Freeman, who is working to turn what was once a store filled with racist merchandise into a diversity center and museum on racial reconciliation.
Freeman was born three months after the Redneck Shop and World’s Only Klan Museum, adorned with Confederate flags and a swastika on a back wall, opened in 1996 in Laurens. He has raised more than $300,000 to renovate the historic Echo Theater, which was a segregated movie theater before housing the shop and a large meeting hall where dozens of hooded Klan members met in the back.
Freeman wants to collect the stories of Black people around Laurens whose ancestors struggled through slavery and segregation and maybe take on other projects like putting up historical markers at the site of each of the more than 150 known lynchings of Black people in the state.
“There are so many stories out there that haven’t been told or we haven’t told completely,” Freeman said.
And that led him to those gray plastic tubs.
In October, he replied to a tweet by a woman who now owns the land where Redneck Shop owner John Howard lived letting the Southern Poverty Law Center know she had a ton of his stuff.
The woman didn’t respond, so Freeman drove up himself and after a unannounced visit, some negotiation and $500, he had decades of stuff marking Howard’s racist life.
There are negatives of cross burnings. Posters of Adolph Hitler. A “Klan Rally Instructions” manual. A flyer called “A Boat Ticket To Africa” with horribly offensive Black caricatures and stereotypes. A business card Klan members would leave to intimidate Black families that said this was a social visit and “don’t make the next visit a business call.”
“This stuff isn’t from 100 years ago. Some of it is maybe from the last decade or two,” Freeman said. “I think it is important to see it and see how deep this hate goes so you can see why we need to fight so hard to change.”
Freeman plans to have historians at the University of South Carolina help him look through the items with an eye toward preservation and display the ones that best tell a story in exhibits at the theater.
A Klan member named Michael Burden, who was once considering killing Kennedy, sold the theater to the pastor in 1997 after Kennedy helped him out when he and Howard had a falling out. But Burden’s deal let Howard keep leasing the theater for the Redneck Shop. Kennedy finally won a 15-year court fight and shut the shop down. The story became the movie “Burden” released earlier this year.
Now Freeman is leading the project to turn the old theater into Kennedy’s dream of a community center where racial reconciliation and harmony is at the forefront.
“We’re hoping The Echo Project will become a place where every race could be respected — a place where diversity is not only just talked about, but is celebrated through action,” Kennedy said.
Freeman grew up in nearby Clinton, and while at the University of South Carolina, felt pulled to talk to Kennedy about his work. Kennedy asked him to lead the project and Freeman gave up a law firm job for his new calling.
“This is a chance to tell a great story,” Freeman said.
An architect and construction firm have been chosen, with work starting soon, and Freeman plans to relaunch the Echo Project’s website to expand its reach.
“To be a part of a project that can use architecture and inflict change at the same time is huge for me,” MOA Architecture Founder Michael Allen said.
The first bit of work for the companies? Scraping off a Confederate flag sticker on the marquee for decades and replacing it with the project’s name and website.
“It needs to be the opposite of a dilapidated old building that stands as a shrine to hatred,” said David Walker, manager for the project for Sodexo’s Construction and Infrastructure Services.
Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.