Black preacher who owns a KKK store

He loved his enemy, and it paid off. John Carlin on a redneck reformed
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The Independent Online
A Black church minister described by his parishioners in South Carolina as the local Martin Luther King owns a shop that specialises in Ku Klux Klan paraphernalia. The Redneck Shop sells T-shirts adorned with racist slogans, photographs of lynchings and - the piece de resistance - a black doll dressed in a Klan uniform lying inside a coffin.

The Reverend David Kennedy, the preacher at the New Beginnings Baptist Church in Laurens, South Carolina, is by all accounts a man of sound mind. If he has a fault it is that he has carried the spirit of Christian forgiveness to heights Saint John the Evangelist might have struggled to understand.

The parable begins on 1 March 1996 when Michael Burden and John Howard, members both of the International Keystone Knights of the KKK, opened the Redneck Shop. The Rev Kennedy led local blacks and whites in protests to close the shop down but the local authorities, manacled by America's inviolable constitutional right to free speech, were powerless to intervene. One white man was so enraged that he drove his van repeatedly into the front of the shop, causing thousands of dollars in damage. A divorced mother of two called Judy Harbeson - she plays the part of the angel in the story - offered Mr Burden and Mr Howard her help in cleaning up the mess.

Mr Burden, who gloried in the title "Exalted Cyclops" of the Ku Klux Klan, and Ms Harbeson duly fell in love. But she had no time for his racist beliefs and told him so repeatedly. The two were married on 1 May last year and the next day, as a wedding present to his wife, he quit the Klan.

Mr Howard, a senior Klansman in South Carolina, was enraged. The newly weds and Ms Harbeson's two children were living in an apartment which he owned. He evicted them.

Left with nowhere to call home the family moved into Mr Burden's truck. A week later Mr Burden stumbled into Rev Kennedy in the town square.

"Can you help me out?" the destitute former Klansman asked. Rev Kennedy recognised him but did not hesitate to respond to his call. He took the family for lunch and installed them in a motel at his own expense.

Duly moved, Mr Burden closed his shop down. But Mr Howard hired a lawyer and persuaded the town officials to grant him a new licence to reopen the shop. Mr Burden, whose sin weighed heavily upon him, told Rev Kennedy that he wished to perform a public act of contrition. A few days later he appeared before a packed congregation of black people at the New Beginnings church and, quivering with nervousness and remorse, made a full apology.

Black Laurens responded to the courageous gesture with generosity. They admitted Mr Burden and his family into their hitherto rigidly segregated neighbourhood where they helped him install his family in a trailer van. Mr Burden was moved to make another confession. He informed Rev Kennedy that before he saw the light he had made plans, under Mr Howard's guidance, to assassinate him and to bomb his church.

In a further act of atonement, Mr Burden sold the building housing the Redneck Shop to Rev Kennedy in April this year. It was not a commercial transaction. Ten dollars was all that changed hands. Yet Mr Howard and his shop remain there to this day.

How can that be? It turns out that Mr Howard had been the original owner of the shop until four years ago he sold it to Mr Burden - but with the curious legal proviso that Mr Howard could keep using the building to do with as he pleased for the rest of his days. Rev Kennedy knows he cannot lawfully evict his Klan tenant but he takes solace in the uncharitable thought that Mr Howard is going out of his mind with frustration at the thought that his landlord is black.

The erstwhile Exalted Cyclops is not faring all that much better himself. So far it appears that his act of earthly redemption will have to be its own reward. Unable to sustain a job for more than a few weeks, he maintains that he gets sacked all the time because his employers are either people who hate what he once stood for, or despise him for having betrayed the white race.

Rev Kennedy, whose great uncle was lynched in Laurens in 1913, continues to care for his reformed prodigal. Periodically the congregation at the reverend's church take up a collection to pay for the former Klansman's electricity bills and to cover food and clothing expenses for his wife and children.