Once upon a time in Laurens, South Carolina, The Echo Theater was a whites-only hall that later would morph into a storefront, museum and recruitment center honoring white supremacy.
Rev. David Kennedy and local historian Regan Freeman are on the front lines today, not trying to rewrite the city’s history, but reshape its future.
They have launched “The Echo Project,” a nonprofit organization that has raised almost $375,000 dedicated to restoring the Echo Theater, a transformative effort that will include a museum and space that will house community classrooms.
“We don’t want to just have a museum to tell this story, the struggle for justice, and the fight against the Klan, but we also want to detail what happened here to make sure it never happens again,” Freeman told CNN.
“The Echo Theater went from being a segregated movie theater to a literal Klan’s store to being in the possession of a Black minister, and it is about to become a place for reconciliation, justice and healing.”
It’s a bright contrast compared to the dark history of the building that hosted Ku Klux Klan meetings once upon a time. Things didn’t improve, even as America began shutting down doors of discrimination. In 1996, the theater became home to the Redneck Shop that sold neo-Nazi paraphernalia, Klans robes and Confederate memorabilia until its forced closure in 2012.
Kennedy was one of the people who called for the shop to be shut down at the time. That fight was chronicled in the 2018 film Burden. (Michael Burden was a co-owner of the Redneck Shop).
“To be a Black person in America, I have too many stories to share that people wouldn’t believe,” Kennedy, 67, told CNN. “Once you choose to speak out, people become fearful of us, and you have to be ready to sacrifice your mind, your heart, your soul, to tell the truth about history and what they did to our people. I was ready to make that sacrifice.”
Out of those dark ashes rises hope, and new beginnings.