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Black pastor transforming theater with racist past into place where diversity is celebrated

Once a home for hate groups to assemble, the Echo Theater in South Carolina is poised for a reinvention led by Rev. David Kennedy.
/ Source: TODAY

A movie theater with a racially charged past is getting a major makeover.

Rev. David Kennedy and his church own the Echo Theater in Laurens, South Carolina. It’s a venue Kennedy, a Black man, frequented as a child, walking in through a segregated entrance.

The theater has a new marquee, but the inside of the building is in need of major repairs. There’s a dirt floor and a faded swastika on the wall.

The Echo Theater is undergoing a massive overhaul.
The Echo Theater is undergoing a massive overhaul.TODAY

The theater was segregated before it became a headquarters for the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups that would meet there. It also became the site of the Redneck Shop, which sold white supremacist memorabilia after opening in 1996.

“When you came in, they had all kind of racist Klan material. They had the wooden dolls with the ropes around their necks,” Kennedy told TODAY’s Craig Melvin.

The theater would begin a transformation, though, when its owner, Michael Burden, elected to leave the KKK. He was shunned for his decision, and Kennedy decided to help after he found Burden and his family living in a truck.

The theater, which was segregated, has a long history of racism.
The theater, which was segregated, has a long history of racism.TODAY

“I didn’t have a choice. I had to,” he said. “When the mandate of need is there, you can’t be reluctant in taking care of human beings.”

A friendship developed between Kennedy and Burden, who sold the building to the pastor, with their story inspiring a book and a movie. Kennedy has a vision for the future of the theater.

“We want it to be a place where we focus on all races,” he said. “I want it to be a place where diversity is not only talked about, but it is lived and celebrated.”

Kennedy is hardly alone in his endeavor. He’s getting help from Regan Freeman, a 25-year-old native of the area who put off plans to attend law school after he learned about the history of lynching in Laurens County. One of those people lynched was Kennedy’s great-uncle, in 1913.

Freeman is now the executive director of the Echo Project. He told TODAY the project is determined to teach others.

“The Echo Project is about reckoning with a dark past, confronting it directly, and trying to make some good come out of it,” Freeman said. “It’s about getting justice. It’s about finding peace.”

Kennedy also said there is a lot to learn from the work he’s undertaken.

“In this world we have to be forgiving,” he said. “Some things do not come overnight. Some things have to come by prayer.”