A Message of Hope: An Unlikely Friendship
During these trying times for us all, hope can often seem to be in short supply. In these moments of polarization and division, it can almost seem like all is lost and like we do not have a pathway back. The US, and the wider world, are so adversarial now and it does not seem to be easily fixed. In this current environment we can learn from a story from the not too distant past which made headlines again earlier this year. It would seem quite unusual for a former white supremacist Ku Klux Klan member and a black Pastor to become close friends, but that is exactly what happened in Laurens, South Carolina. This was where Reverend Kennedy, a black Pastor, met the Grand Dragon of the local KKK, Michael Burden in 1996.
What was once an historically segregated movie theater, The Echo, became a white supremacist store, the Redneck Shop, which sold white nationalist and neo-Nazi paraphernalia owned by Michael Burden and John Howard. When the Redneck Shop opened in 1996, Reverend Kennedy fought continuously to have it closed and protested relentlessly outside, risking his life to stand up against hatred. Throughout the time of the shops existence, the building became the self-proclaimed ‘World’s Only Klan Museum’ and the meeting spot for several white nationalist groups, including the National Socialist Movement (NSM), the largest neo-Nazi organization in the country, according to the Anti-Defamation League (CNN, 2021). When Kennedy stood up and fought against the store, he became a target for the KKK, putting his life, and the lives of those close to him, in jeopardy.
Opening the store was Burden’s idea, but he soon fell out with John Howard, and he and his family were struggling to get by. When Burden had met his wife, he began questioning his affiliation to the KKK and his beliefs, he joined because he felt isolated and alone and felt he had found a collective to belong to. Burden and his family had lived in the basement of the store at one time but following the falling out with Howard they had nowhere to go. It was then that Reverend Kennedy extended a helping hand to Burden and his family, fed them, and aided them in finding housing.
Despite all that had gone before Reverend Kennedy saw someone who needed help and was not found wanting (Greenville News, 2020). Burden sold his share of ownership in the shop to Kennedy in 1997 and turned over the building deed. Following a protracted legal battle Reverend Kennedy and his church were deemed to own the building although there was a legal stipulation attached which meant Howard could continue running the store rent-free until his death (Washington Post, 2021). Reverend Kennedy’s battle to have the store closed continued and the Redneck Shop was finally forced to close sixteen years after it had opened, by a court order, in 2012.
How could a black Pastor have even contemplated helping a member of the KKK? Reverend Kennedy realized the courage it took for Burden to ask for help, particularly from him. Reverend Kennedy’s feelings toward Burden changed and he saw a man who was trying to help his wife, and family, rather than seeing him as a KKK member who felt he should not exist. The selfless gesture of goodwill to someone who had only wished him ill previously began to sow the seeds of an unlikely friendship, one which is now 25 years old. If Reverend Kennedy and Burden could come together and form this friendship, nothing is impossible.
In 2012, following the court order Reverend Kennedy and his church took full possession of the building. Rather than destroy its contents, many of the artifacts were saved to be used to engage in meaningful conversations about racial history and to attempt to tackle the difficult questions which resulted. In 2018, Regan Freeman, a local historian started researching what took place at the Redneck Shop, uncovering records and digging into the archives of the past 20 years. Eventually, he discovered posters of Hitler and other paraphernalia such as a KKK’s business card designed to scare black families with a warning not to make the next visit a business call. Freeman also discovered that the Redneck Shop was a recruitment center of the American Nazi Party promoting evil and hate.
In 2019, Reverend Kennedy partnered with Freeman to establish The Echo Foundation. Under the foundation The Echo Theater is now being restored and plans are underway to transform The Echo Theater and Redneck Shop into a museum of remembrance and reconciliation. The museum will tell the story of what happened in Laurens, including its struggle for justice and its fight against the Ku Klux Klan. What was once a segregated movie theater, and a store glorifying the KKK, is now becoming a center for social justice, healing, and reconciliation. It will display what Freeman uncovered and be a place where people can gather and engage with one another. What was once a place of evil is being transformed into a center which supports diversity and a place for every race and religion to congregate.
As for Burden, who joined the KKK believing no one loved him and thinking that they would become his family, he realized that he did not want to be a hateful evil person like the rest of KKK. Burden hopes people will learn from the mistakes that he made and not choose to hate to belong. He also realized that it will be us, the people, who are going to make changes in this world, not the politicians (Washington Post, 2021).
As Reverend Kennedy once said, “You have to stand up for what is right regardless of what the consequences are, how long it takes, or who stands in your way . . . we are warriors, full of love and full of forgiveness, but we will always fight, even if it means dying for our communities” (CNN, 2021). Now 25 years later, both Reverend Kennedy and Burden stand in the light of grace, Reverend Kennedy knowing that he helped turn Burden’s life around and Burden being ever so grateful for it. If this was possible, then anything is possible. We often feel that our country, and the world, are so polarized and divisive that nothing can be done to remedy that. We can, and we must. It is possible to change our course, it is possible to shun hatred, but we must have the will and humility to do so.