The Upstate town of Laurens is a pretty typical small, rural Southern town. You might not notice the history of violence and hate sown into one of the abandoned buildings downtown. You might not notice the sneer behind its crumbling facade. You might not see the memory of blood behind its boarded up windows. But it’s there.
Even though the marquee at the Echo Theater is dirty and blank after all these years, the story remains. It’s not so much the story of a segregated movie theater but the story of Michael Burden Jr., who transformed it into the World Famous Redneck Shop.
You might be tempted to think that’s funny, or roll your eyes and write it off as silly. Don’t.
Burden wasn’t just a misguided character, led astray by racist rhetoric and revisionist history, who told working-class white folks that their real enemies are other working families who don’t share their skin color, language or God. He was a klansman, reputedly a grand dragon.
And the Redneck Shop was headquarters for two Klan factions, Neo-Nazis and the Aryan Brotherhood, and a base for white supremacist activity. This was no joke.
Then, there was the Rev. David Kennedy, pastor of Laurens’ New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, community leader and NAACP activist. And he had a history with the Klan. He’d grown up in segregated housing. His grandmother’s uncle had been lynched by the Klan and his body hung from a railroad trestle in 1913. For 75 years, the rope remained as a warning.
When the Redneck Shop opened, Kennedy took action because he saw it for what it was. He would fight the Klan, and the Klan would fight back. There were threats and sometimes violence. But Kennedy didn’t scare easily. In fact, he didn’t scare at all.
Burden, then newly married and struggling financially, started to question the decisions that had brought him to this point. And, eventually, he tried to change. But no one would help him because they couldn’t see him as more than what he’d been. So, with no other choice, he turned to Kennedy, and Kennedy didn’t turn away — even though he knew Burden was dangerous and had even considered killing him.
The reverend took him in, sheltered him, counseled him and helped him get his life back on track. He stood with him and, in some cases, stood between him and those who would do him harm.
When people called Kennedy crazy, his reply was, “All I see is a brother in Christ.”
In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. answered those who considered a pastor from Atlanta to be an “outside agitator” by saying:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their ‘thus saith the Lord’ far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.”
You see, that is Dr. King’s example, and Kennedy lived it.
King had the courage to have faith not just in who we are but who we can be. So he answered the Macedonian call for aid and never looked back.
I’m not suggesting that we simply ignore past sins. I’m not suggesting we forget those who marched, bled, cried and died in the struggle for equality. Rather, I’m suggesting we honor them on this day as Dr. King would have. I’m suggesting we honor them, as Kennedy did, by dedicating ourselves to their struggle — not for vengeance but for justice.
Then, at last, maybe we all shall be forever free.
Antjuan Seawright, the founder and CEO of Columbia-based public relations firm Blueprint Strategy, has worked on numerous Democratic political campaigns.