While we still are working toward racial justice, there are inspiring stories that shine a light on bravery and perseverance, stories that show when people can begin to question their basic values, we can change and experience and learn new things. The following story about the Echo Theater is a reminder that we can acknowledge and admit wrongs, concede failures, hear people more clearly, and seek forgiveness. When we see injustice, we are obligated to act — and just as a person’s values can change so can a nation.
An Unlikely Friendship
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 David Kennedy, a Black pastor, met the Grand Dragon of the local KKK, Michael Burden in 1996.
What was once a 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 shop’s 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 met his wife, he began questioning his affiliation with 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 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 Project. Under this 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 base of hate is being transformed into a center that 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 the 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, many 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 learn to forgive. It is possible to change our course, and it is possible to shun hatred, but we must have the will and humility to do so. The message in this story is inspirational, remembering that the impossible is possible, that love conquers hate, and that the power of forgiveness can transform.
Forgiveness has the capacity to touch many souls. The forgiveness that Reverend Kennedy extended to Burden went far beyond individual forgiveness. It had an impact on the community and society at large. This is what a political forgiveness process can look like. It may start with one individual and with that circumstances can emerge which affect communities and societies alike. As more individuals recognize the power of forgiveness, this kind of work begins to build a foundation that can change mindsets and ultimately build a culture of political forgiveness within our communities and support the healing of this nation.
Unfortunately, we have a terrible stain on our history and what this country was built on. This can be healed, especially if we can engage in a political forgiveness process. It is up to us. Like the story of Reverend Kennedy, Black History Month gives us the opportunity to learn from, as well as celebrate, heroes and cultural icons, and to strive for a more perfect union.