Isaac White is a black man, 92 years old. He thought he had seen the worst of racial hatred in his lifetime, but this week he stared in disbelief at the old Echo movie theater in his home town.
There, on the marquee that used to advertise movies, one of his fellow townsmen is advertising "The World's Only Klan Museum. The Redneck Shop." Owner John Howard said he is selling Klan souvenirs to help pay for a Klan museum he wants to open in the theater. He said it will be the first of its kind.
White did not go inside the store, but if he had, he would have seen photograph upon photograph of cross-burnings and men in hoods and white robes, including one of the "Ku Klux Klan kiddies, New Castle Indiana, Aug. 1, 1923." He would have seen stacks of segregation-era signs -- "Colored People Must Sit in Balcony," "No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans" -- selling for $1 a copy. He would have seen T-shirts spewing racial hate messages selling for $10.50 each, and in a back room, on a white mannequin, a Klan robe from the 1930s.
"I've lived in Laurens a long time and I've never seen anything as offensive as this," said White, a retired elementary school principal, as he stared into the store. "I don't have any hatred in my heart, but I think we can do better. I think Laurens can do better."
Residents are wearing black-and-white ribbons to symbolize racial harmony. By Thursday afternoon, three flower shops had given away more than 1,000 ribbons. And on Saturday, about 300 black and white residents protested peacefully, causing Howard to close his store for the day.
Walter Smith, a high school teacher and president of the local NAACP, helped organize the protest rally in the square in Laurens, about 95 miles southwest of Charlotte, N.C. The town is close enough to the booming Interstate 85 corridor that it hopes to attract development and new blood. Smith said a Klan shop will not help. "People don't want to move into an area where they have that nonsense," Smith said. "They have the constitutional right to do what they're doing. It's not illegal or anything, but it's an abomination for the good people of Laurens County. When good people keep quiet, bad things happen. We don't need to keep quiet about hate groups."
Mary Lindsay, a beauty school student, will be at the rally. "I don't believe in prejudice," said Lindsay, who is black. "I see people as people."
Howard opened the Redneck Shop about two weeks ago. The first week, television cameras beamed the news across the country. The idea of the Klan is still a powerful force in America, even if experts estimate membership at 5,000, compared with the 1960s when it was 100,000 or more.
Herbert Shapiro, a University of Cincinnati historian and Klan expert, said he would not consider Howard's shop a museum because it does not put the Klan in its historical context of race violence. He considers it a danger.
"I would view any attempt at merchandising KKK memorabilia, be it in Ohio or South Carolina or anywhere else, as an attempt to return to an earlier era," Shapiro said. "And a dangerous era."
The first week Howard opened, he put a white-robed mannequin at the front of the store. It caused such a controversy -- people pelted the window with rocks -- he moved it to the back room. Black residents say Howard also displayed a mannequin of a black man inside a coffin with a noose around his neck. Howard said it is not true: It was a white female mannequin in a black robe inside a coffin -- and he got rid of it.
"I didn't know anyone would be offended by the mannequins," he said.
"I really just think he's trying to agitate people and I think he's doing a good job of it," said former Mayor Bob Dominick, who is white.
The second week, people came to buy. In a few hours on a recent afternoon, about 20 people browsed.
Sheila Thomas, 32, who said she does not believe in "racial mixing," came to buy a T-shirt with a picture of a Klan hood and these words: "The original boys in the hood."
Her friend, Stephanie Wilke, 22, said she is comfortable supporting the Klan and asserting her rights as a white person. "The blacks wear Malcolm X T-shirts," she said. "These words are our heritage. In the South, it's the rebel flag."
Janet Turner, from nearby Honea Path, bought three T-shirts. "I'm not ashamed," she said. "I'm a Klan supporter because I believe in the southern ways."
John Kimball, a student at Presbyterian College in nearby Clinton, came with about five friends just to look around. "Just make sure you say I disagree with it," said Kimball, 20. "I just didn't think it was true."
Despite the message of white supremacy blaring from his shop, Howard, 50, says he is not a racist. He said he is a Klansman who no longer believes in racial hate.
"I joined the Klan because in the late '60s they was burning and destroying cities, the black people were," Howard said. "I was in fear of the future of my white race."
Now, he said, he is a Klan member simply because of "the fraternalness." He said he last wore his robes last year at a rally. Still, he sells a picture of himself from 1971, when he was grand dragon of South Carolina, wearing a teal cone-shaped hat and a teal robe with red Klan crosses on it.
"I love the white race," he said. "I'm proud of the white race. But I don't flaunt it." Howard says his museum will be private, where people might enter by appointment only. "That way, no one can say, I'm offended,' " Howard said.
White, the retired principal, said he is offended. He is so offended he is afraid to go into the shop. It brings back memories of a terrible past he thought was dead. Said White, "It would give anybody a chill who is of a different color." CAPTION: John Howard relaxes in his store, the Redneck Shop, which has stirred strong emotions in Laurens, S.C. A Ku Klux Klan member, Howard says he is not a racist.