The “World Famous Redneck Shop” in downtown Laurens, S.C., has been headquarters to two different Klan factions and the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement. It has played host to a reunion of the infamous neo-Nazi group, the Aryan Nations, and sells cheap racist merchandise including T-shirts that read, “Ain’t Racist, Just Never Met a Nigger I Liked.” Yet for more than 10 years, a black Baptist church has owned the store in an unusual legal arrangement. The Rev. David Kennedy says that in 1997 his church bought the Echo Theater, the building that houses the Redneck Shop, out of pity for a poor family and a misguided belief that the owner had changed his racist ways.
The Redneck Shop was built up by Michael Burden Jr., a former grand dragon in a South Carolina Klan group who acquired it from John Howard, another one-time Klansman who had had taken Burden under his wing. But Kennedy told Hatewatch that in the late ’90s, Burden’s family was desperately poor and Burden begged him to buy the property. “His family was about to starve,” the Rev. Kennedy said. The family was so famished, Kennedy added, that they had trouble standing up. Moved, Kennedy embarked on a tentative relationship with the one-time Klan leader.
Kennedy says he initially encouraged the city to buy the Redneck Shop property. But when officials declined, Kennedy’s New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church paid Burden $1,000 for it on April 22, 1997, according to the property deed. The sale was organized as a life estate that allowed Howard (not Burden) to operate the Redneck Shop until Howard’s death. Kennedy says he agreed to the arrangement to help the ailing Burden family and because he believed Burden Jr. had recanted of his racist views — a story recounted that same year in an ABC America “Prime Time Live” segment entitled “The Redneck & the Reverend: A Story of Hate & Hope.” At one point during their relationship, Kennedy says, Burden even told the black reverend that Howard had suggested that Burden assassinate him. “We helped him and he wanted to apologize to the black community,” Kennedy said of Burden, adding that Burden actually began attending his church on a regular basis. “Then all of a sudden he stopped showing up.”
The Rev. Kennedy still hopes the Echo Theater will one day be home to his New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church. Currently, services are held in a double-wide trailer. But the reverend is banned from setting foot on the property. “Every time I went over there, they would call the police and prevent me from going in,” he said. That’s a policy that John Howard, who still operates out of the shop, long extended to black passersby. In 2006, the Intelligence Report noted the reaction of John Howard to a black child pedaling a bicycle past his store. “There’s a nigger there I’d like to hang,” said Howard.
The latest round of attention paid to the fate of Redneck Shop began with a February visit to the establishment by an Associated Press reporter and the Rev. Kennedy. As the two strolled in, Howard took a different tack, yelling out in an ostensibly friendly way, “Rev. Kennedy, where you been hiding?”
Since the property will only truly become Kennedy’s once Howard dies — and Howard is presently 62 — neo-Nazi and Klan groups could continue to meet there for decades. But Kennedy isn’t overly disturbed. “What is 20 or 30 years [compared] with the assurance of knowing the only KKK museum in the world won’t be in that building forever?” he asked.
Disturbingly, the operators of the Redneck Shop may have made moves to cut the New Beginning church out of its property. When Kennedy made a visit to the courthouse recently to get a copy of the building’s deed, he found two other documents on top of it. One, dated Nov. 16, 2006, has Burden selling the property to Howard’s wife for $10. A second transaction took place on March 30, 2007, when Hazel Howard apparently sold the property for $10 to both her husband and Nicholas Chappell, an official of the National Socialist Movement. “That was placed on top of our deed unjustly and, as far as I’m concerned, illegally,” said Kennedy. Both transactions were completed without his knowledge or signature.
Kennedy says his lawyer is investigating the matter and feels confident he will prevail. As he told the AP: “There are two powers in the world: the mind and the sword. In the long run, the sword is defeated by the mind. I want to destroy the concept of hatred.”