The Turning Point
In 1996, the Echo Theater, once a racially segregated movie theater, was turned into the “The World’s Famous Redneck Shop,” also advertised as a Ku Klux Klan museum. For years, a flood of KKK, neo-Nazi and other white supremacist memorabilia greeted anyone who walked through its doors.
Rev. David Kennedy of New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church has been a civil rights activist in the town for decades — a town named after Henry Laurens, a former slave trader in the 1800s.
As someone who grew up in the Jim Crow era, Kennedy has experienced racial hate and violence firsthand. His own great-great uncle was lynched more than 100 years ago in Laurens. “If a white person was walking down the sidewalk,” he says, “we knew quickly to step to the side.”
Kennedy fought against the Redneck Shop for years when it was active, but he says, “It was considered a sin to fight.”
The turning point for the Echo Theater was an unlikely friendship between Kennedy and Klan member Mike Burden. In 1997, after choosing to leave the Klan with the encouragement of his girlfriend, Burden had fallen on hard times. Kennedy took Burden in when no one else would. That support led Burden to sell the rights of the building to Kennedy, under the agreement that the former owner of the Redneck Shop, John Howard, could run the store until he died.
In 2017, Kennedy was officially able to take over the building and begin the Echo Theater Project. In 2018, the movie Burden was released, chronicling the story of Burden, Kennedy and the Echo Theater.
“I want people to learn from my mistakes,” Burden told People in March 2020. “It’s the small people in this world who are going to make this change. It’s not the politicians. It’s the reverend, the people who work.”
Today, the Echo Theater still houses the narrow entrance a mere 6 feet away from the main door, where people of color were forced to enter back when it was still a segregated movie theater. Inside, there are peeling stickers from the building’s days as the Redneck Shop. In the large main room, the old theater, a fading swastika covers the majority of the back wall. Broken glass also litters the floor from people who vandalized the building in protest of its new purpose.
But Kennedy aims to change all of that. It is his and his church’s mission to turn the building into a community center.
The renovations will take the neglected interior and transform it into a destination that will not only support all members of the community but also help increase education about racial injustice. The building that sold KKK robes as recently as 2012 will be replaced with a museum that will foster dialogue and a community space that is both approachable and versatile.
This is where Michael Allen comes in. As the principal designer/architect for the project, Allen, along with a large team, is working hard to make sure the vision Kennedy and his congregation have for the building comes to fruition.