Just 25 years ago, in 1996, an abandoned theater in downtown Laurens, South Carolina, was purchased by leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. They converted the old Echo Theater to a museum to celebrate the history of the KKK, and claimed it to be the only of its kind in the world. But as the Klan burned crosses in the night, you galvanized the Black community to fill the night with a different kind of fire—a fire that burned of civil disobedience and “good trouble.”
With the help of Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr.—an original Upstate South Carolina native—you rallied the Black rank and file to protest the formation of the museum that intentionally served as a reminder to your congregation and others of the segregation, bigotry, and terror once pervasive in your South Carolina town. It was here, on May 31, 1892, where my great uncle David Shaw survived his lynching; and on August 12, 1913, your great uncle Richard Puckett was hung from a railroad trestle and riddled with bullets—with the hanging rope remaining in place until 1985.
Within months of the museum’s establishment, you took your household and entire community by surprise when you provided shelter, food, and work to a recently defected Klansman and his family. Unbeknownst to you, this former member of the KKK was the owner of the original deed to The Redneck Shop. Overwhelmed by your kindheartedness and effervescent spirit of forgiveness, he sold you the deed. In 2017, your place of worship, the New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, claimed full legal possession of the landmark.
Forest Whitaker startlingly portrayed your character in the Burden Movie featuring Usher Raymond with yourself in a grand cameo. Thank you, Rev. Kennedy, for your willingness to confront racism and its gatekeepers in Laurens County, South Carolina—a county where 3/4 of my ancestors were enslaved.