Bigotry for Sale

The Ku Klux Klan is deep rooted in the history of the former Confederate states. Founded as a terrorist group following the civil war, the group encouraged and often “enforced” Jim Crow laws, held influence over segregationist activities, and was involved in voter fraud and intimidation for nearly a century. And, sadly, there are still active chapters throughout the south from Tennessee to Mississippi and beyond. While not nearly as prevalent as days past, the organization’s impact is still felt in many of the southern states’ laws and it even defined the founding principles of BOTH our country’s political parties.

We grew up in the north, have northern sympathies and northern values, so, you can imagine our reluctance in visiting the “World Famous” Redneck Shop and KKK Museum in Laurens, SC. Fearing the worst, and wanting to avoid a confrontation of some sort, we changed our mind at least twice on the way there.

As soon as we arrived, we were passed on the sidewalk by a 20-something wearing a racist t-shirt, cut off jean shorts and carrying a six-foot cross that we could only assume would meet its end in flames at some back country rally, or worse. Once inside the dusty, overstocked store we were assaulted by confederate flags, racist bumper stickers, posters, t-shirts and patches. But, no matter how much you prepare, nothing readies the sensible person for the first time they see openly displayed Klan memorabilia and Klan robes available for sale in a public space. Not until you see hatred displayed like this, like canned vegetables lined on a shelf to be purchased and consumed by anyone visiting the shop (adults and children alike), do you realize it really exists.

The shop is located cattycorner from City Hall on the town’s main square, and run by 67-year-old John Howard. Howard is short and pudgy with dark eyes obscured by thick glasses under a confederate flag baseball cap. He’s wearing a jacket and cringes regularly at the pain of an old back injury, and politely welcomes us to the shop. His frail appearance hides a dangerous past. You see, John Howard for a time was the Grand Dragon of both the North and South Carolina chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, and he’s an unabashed bigot. Even worse, there are reports that this building is considered the headquarters for the White Supremacist movement, where they hold annual conferences and meetings.

I strike up polite conversation with Howard, asking about the shop and its history. Without prompting, he leads us around the room, sharing stories of the Klan memorabilia. But, as he grew more comfortable, it was harder for him to hide his bigotry and his language became harsher. When we decides that we didn’t want to pay the additional $5 per person suggested donation to visit the KKK museum in the back, he no longer holds anything back and begins discussion confrontations he’s had with customers and liberally tosses the “n” word into our conversations.

With that, we decided to make a quick, but polite exit. We were on his turf, and in his store, and thought it best to beat a hasty retreat to our car, and head on to Atlanta, which we did. As we drove away, we did so quietly, with little conversation. We just found it sad, that in today’s world, an integrated world, such ignorance can still exist, and flourish to new generations. Sadly, it’s part of our world, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel, at least for this location.

You see, the building is owned by David Kennedy, a black civil rights leader and local pastor. In March 1996, John Howard and Michael Burden opened the shop and Howard is reputed to have sold some portion of the building or business to Burden, agreeing that Howard would have lifetime rights to operate the store in the building. Burden shortly thereafter disavowed any connection to the Klan, joined Kennedy’s church and apologized for his racist past. In 1997, Burden says he sold his interest in The Redneck Shop to Kennedy for $1,000, and there’s paperwork to prove that.

Of course, Howard maintains that he still has the “right” to operate the store for the rest of his lifetime.  But, when he’s gone, the shop will become Kennedy’s  new church location. Hopefully, by then Howard will also have made amends… with someone.