The congregation at the nearly all-black New Beginnings Baptist Church here took up a collection last month for one of its needy members -- the former grand dragon of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan.
The offering was the latest twist in a tale of hatred, redemption and forgiveness between the church's crusading black preacher, the Rev. David E. Kennedy, and Michael Eugene Burden Jr., a self-described redneck who brought notoriety to this small town when he opened the Redneck Shop and Klan museum, displaying KKK paraphernalia ranging from T-shirts bearing racial epithets to photographs of lynchings.
But now Burden has renounced it all -- his Klan membership, his racial hatred. In a move that infuriated his former KKK compatriots and delighted the black community here, on April 22 Burden sold the building housing the Redneck Shop to the black preacher who had led a fight to close the store. The former Klansman said he did it for love -- he has married a woman who persuaded him to renounce the Klan -- and for the kindness Kennedy showed him when Burden's renunciation of the KKK left him jobless and homeless.
"I want to apologize for causing an eyesore on Laurens," Burden told members of the New Beginnings Baptist Church after Kennedy befriended him. "At one point, I believed in this. But it was the wrong belief."
Kennedy, for his part, is savoring his new ownership of the former Echo Theater building, where the Redneck Shop is located and for now is still in operation. The deed at the courthouse said the building was sold to him for $1,000, but he and Burden say only $10 actually changed hands.
Burden's former partner and Klan mentor, John Howard, said he has no plans to close the shop. Burden bought the theater building from Howard four years ago -- with the proviso that Howard had the right to use it for free as long as he lives.
But, said Kennedy, "I'm his landlord. I know he's about to go out of his mind."
This idea does not sit well with Howard. "He's not my landlord," he said angrily. "How can a person be your landlord if he doesn't get any rent from you?"
Since the Redneck Shop opened on March 1, 1996, it has attracted to Laurens a steady stream of Klan sympathizers as well as the merely curious. The town of 9,600 is the seat of a county of the same name, with a population of 58,000 that is 28 percent black.
Although blacks and whites for the moment live peacefully, if largely separately, in Laurens, the area has had an inglorious history of race relations. A Klan rally was held nearby as recently as May 13, 1996, and several black churches were torched in recent years. At least some of those fires were set for racial reasons, according to local authorities.
Kennedy grew up in The Bricks, a segregated public housing development whose buildings until three or four years ago still bore the letters "W" for "white" and "C" for "colored." His grandmother had an uncle who was lynched here in 1913, and it was widely believed that shreds of a rope that dangled from a railroad trestle until 1988 were left over from that horrible event.
Burden, who grew up in a little town eight miles away from Laurens, said both his parents had briefly been KKK members. He got involved with the Klan eight years ago after meeting Howard, who gave Burden room and board in exchange for his working in a business run by Howard and his wife.
Howard was a leader of the South Carolina Klan and had turned the Echo movie house into a meeting place for like-minded racists, who gathered there from half a dozen eastern and southern states. Soon, Burden said, he found himself embracing Howard's white supremacist philosophy, and he was welcomed into the Klan.
"I was led to believe that was my family," Burden told Monte Paulsen, a reporter for the State newspaper in Columbia, with whom he first publicly revealed his transformation last month. "That was my life. That was my destiny. And I done the best I could to live up to it. I ate, slept, drank and studied Klan all the time."
Burden's dedication was rewarded. Soon he collected the exotic titles of exalted cyclops, grand dragon and the emperor's night hawk.
Howard took a paternal interest in his protege and employee, and in June 1994, Burden said, he sold him the movie house for $5,000 -- with the proviso for Howard's free lifetime use.
The enterprising Burden soon came up with the idea of an income-producing venture for his newly acquired real estate, a shop that would capitalize on some white southerners' devotion to their Confederate heritage and to the Klan's efforts to perpetuate it.
In a stroke of inspiration, he named it the Redneck Shop.
Largely on the basis of its catchy name, the store quickly attracted international attention. Its inventory of racist T-shirts, trinkets touting the National Association for the Advancement of Rednecks, Confederate flags and emblems, and white-hooded Klan uniforms immediately drew denunciations from civil rights organizations and other groups.
On the day it opened, Kennedy organized a protest rally that drew an integrated crowd of 400 to 500 people, wearing black-and-white unity ribbons, to the courthouse square adjacent to the Redneck Shop.
Others did not limit their protests to words. A white man who said he was enraged about the shop's presence drove 70 miles from the South Carolina capital of Columbia and repeatedly backed his van into the front of the shop, causing several thousand dollars damage.
One of the people who volunteered to help Howard and Burden clean up the debris was Judy Harbeson, a divorced mother of two young children who previously had chatted with Burden when they encountered each other on the sidewalk.
Although Harbeson recalled being attracted to Burden right away, she did not share his beliefs. As their relationship developed, Burden's infatuation with the Klan diminished and his friendship with Howard began to grow cold.
Burden and Harbeson were married on May 1, 1996. Afterward, Burden asked Howard for a loan so he and his bride, and her two young children, could rent a house. Howard, already upset by Harbeson's influence over his protege, refused, according to Burden.
The next day, Burden said, "as a wedding present" for his wife, the grand dragon for the KKK in South Carolina quit the white supremacist group.
Howard responded by evicting Burden from the apartment he used above the shop; Burden and his new family took refuge in his truck.
A week later, Burden ran into Kennedy in the town square.
"I know you don't trust me," Kennedy recalled a downtrodden Burden telling him, "but I need to talk to you. I'm hungry, and I got two young'uns and my wife living in my truck."
"We can talk ideology later," responded Kennedy, who took Burden and his family to a steak house, where he bought them lunch, and then to the Welcome Lodge, where he plunked down money for a week's rent.
Responding to Kennedy's conciliatory gestures, Burden went to the town hall last July 9 and, as the operator of the Redneck Shop, withdrew its business license, forcing the shop to close.
But Howard hired an out-of-town lawyer, who threatened to sue if his client were denied a new license. Reluctantly, town officials acquiesced. The shop reopened a few weeks later -- with Howard its proprietor. Meanwhile, Burden told Kennedy he wanted to apologize to the black community. And a few nights later, a nervous Burden faced an overflow gathering in Kennedy's church and apologized.
Kennedy praised Burden's remorse: "Here was a fellow who on the shop's hot line had said nigger this and nigger that,' and that black people were descended from apes. It took a lot."
Later, in private, Burden told Kennedy he had a further confession to make. He had stalked the preacher, following him from his house to the church with the idea of possibly assassinating him. He had also, he later told Kennedy's lawyer, plotted to bomb Kennedy's church.
Today, Burden and his family live in a trailer in a black section of town, under the protective watch of members of the New Beginnings Church. Sometimes the family does not have enough money to pay for electricity, and the church will take up a collection to help. At school, his stepchildren have had to endure being called names. The transformation has not been easy for Burden, a high school dropout who has difficulty talking about his motives and his change of heart. But Kennedy said he is convinced the change is sincere and permanent.
After holding a steady job for seven years with Howard, Burden has been unable to find regular employment.
"I've had about 10 jobs" since leaving the Klan, Burden said. But in each instance, after a week to two months "they always find some excuse to fire me."
Was he fired because of his Klan activities, or because he renounced the Klan, Burden was asked. "I'm not sure," he answered. "Some of each, I think." CAPTION: Michael Burden, right, renounced the Klan after marrying Judy Harbeson, left, and sold building housing the Redneck Shop to Rev. David Kennedy, center. CAPTION: John Howard relaxes amid displays of Klan paraphernalia in the Redneck Shop, which he continues to run under a proviso giving him rent-free use of the space.