(I did this photo essay after a visit to the Redneck Shop and Ku Klux Klan Museum in Laurens, South Carolina during the Christmas holiday of 1996. Surprisingly, this business is still thriving, with the addition of some racist material about President Obama. If you think hate has disappeared from American life in 2010, think again.)
The Redneck Shop, and it's backroom Ku Klux Klan Museum, recently overcame legal attempts by the town to shut it down and is now doing a brisk business selling tee shirts, caps, jackets, belt buckles, confederate flags and bumper stickers proudly celebrating the "heritage" that's supposed to be the soul of the Southern redneck culture.
While in my native state of South Carolina, a friend and I decided to visit the tiny establishment that has generated headlines throughout the world and triggered protests and racial tension in this quiet Southern community.We found proprietor John Howard, an enthusiastic living encyclopedia of Klan history, happily answering questions and ringing up purchases to a shop filled with a mix local friends (the redneck camaraderie was palpable) and quiet curiosity seekers feeling a little on edge.
The ice was broken when my friend asked Howard why there were several pictures of former President Warren G. Harding on the walls. Howard, eager to please, proudly proclaimed Harding "the first Klan member President of the United States" and directed us to a fuzzy photograph that supposedly depicted the Klan's funeral for Harding after the 29th President died in 1923 after only 30 months in office.
Howard told us that many of the old South's most revered political, business and military figures, some still celebrated today in public monuments at state government buildings, were Klan members. However, he insisted, history has been cleaned up in recent years and the Klan associations have been largely removed from the celebratory stories told today about these Southern icons.
Howard, a self-described "educator" on Klan matters, works hard to convince visitors that the Klan is not a racist organization. He sits under a confederate flag with the slogan: "Heritage Not Hate." (Heritage is spelled incorrectly.) He talks about Christian values, defending women and children, and protecting the culture from undefined enemies.Yet, in an instant, he switches from Klan evangelist to a man hawking $1 Xerox copies of vintage "Whites Only" signs from restaurants, rest rooms and other public facilities. He offered to sell me a kit for organizing a Klan chapter in my home town and suggested I might buy a Klan hood and robe ($100 for a basic white model; $150 for a brightly-colored leadership version).
Selected visitors to the Redneck Shop are allowed by Howard to go down a hall into the Klan Museum, located in a large room at the rear of the building. From his perch at the cash register up front, Howard keeps a close eye on those in the museum through closed-circuit video cameras.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a cluster of mannequins wearing Klan robes and hoods. The walls are covered with photographs and posters. Display cases are packed with memorabilia, containing an array of medals, buttons, pamphlets and kitsch that might be generated over time by any major political party. In one display case was a chilling Klan calling card that stated: "You've been visited by the Ku Klux Klan. This was a social call. Please don't make the next visit a business call."
As our visit was ending, I casually asked Howard if he would let me take some photos of the shop and museum. He responded that he had allowed very few photos to be made on the premises but—to my total surprise—said would allow me to do so. He never asked what I did for a living and I never volunteered to him that my profession is a writer.
The accompanying photos—made hastily with a point and shoot camera—are the result of that visit.