Klan races into the heritage business

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The Independent Online
"Children under 18 must be accompanied by an adult," says the sign outside the old Echo Theatre in Laurens, but risque films are not the feature attraction. If only they were, wish most inhabitants of this small, God-fearing town in South Carolina's Up Country. At the Echo these days the fare is not so much X-rated as Triple-K. Where once you picked up popcorn, you can now buy Ku Klux Klan memorabilia.

It is three months since John Howard, a Klansman of 30 years, opened the Redneck Shop in the Echo's former foyer, to raise money for what is planned as the the world's first KKK museum. A range of material is on offer, from Sassy South T-shirts (the Confederate flag accompanied by the inscription, "If you don't like my flag you can kiss my rebel ass,") to ones that are blatantly offensive: "The KKK is getting bigger. Ain't you glad you're not a nigger." There are signs from segregation times warning "No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans", and portraits of luminaries such as General Nathan Forrest, the Klan's first Wizard in 1866.

Business may be slow - not a single other customer appeared when I was there this week but a town has been traumatised and old wounds of the South have been re-opened. The Redneck Shop plainly serves as an enlistment centre for the Klan. Most chilling of all, a caller to the number printed on the shop's business cards is met by a KKK recruiting message spewing abuse at "nigger hordes" who want to "breed with your beautiful young daughters" to produce a race of "welfare recipient mongrels".

Whatever else though, Mr Howard is not a quitter. In March a driver deliberately crashed his van into the store, causing $9,800 damage but Mr Howard was back in business the same afternoon.

Mr Howard does not, however, take kindly to the media. "I want nothing to do with journalists; not one of them ever printed nothing but lies about me." His argument is that, warts and all, the Klan is part of Southern history. And if Louis Farrakhan can rail against whites and Jews, why cannot he run a souvenir shop?

The old Ku Klux Klan, of course, is dead. Across the South, blacks serve in police forces which once were Klan accomplices, and civil-liberties groups keep watch on right-wing hate movements. Probably only a few thousand Klansmen are left, belonging to organisations with names like the International Keystone Order of the KKK, in which Mr Howard holds the rank of Grand Dragon. Compare that to 5 million members at the KKK's height in the 1920s. But if the Wizards, Cyclops and Dragons have scattered to the winds, their philosophy lives on.

South Carolina has led the recent spate of arson attacks against black churches across the old Confederacy, in one of which a suspect was carrying a Klan membership card. As a growing number of militia movements attests, white supremacism is anything but dead. At about the time Mr Howard started business, Americans were appalled by a videotape of a white South Carolina state trooper cursing and beating a black female motorist he had stopped for speeding.

And now the Redneck Shop, summoning a past the oldest still remember - of church burnings and lynchings, blazing crosses and bands of hooded horsemen terrorising the black population.

But Mr Howard is not apologising. "The only people I've had problems with, who took it as an insult and a racial situation have been blacks," he told Time when he still gave interviews. "I didn't know that blacks were so prejudiced."