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A visit to the Redneck Shop

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In an abandoned movie theater just off the historic town square in Laurens, S.C. , a new business is awakening deep-seated passions in Southerners that date back to the Civil War. The Redneck Shop, and its backroom Ku Klux Klan Museum, recently overcame legal attempts by the town to shut it down and is now doing a brisk business selling T-shirts, caps, jackets, belt buckles, confederate flags and bumper stickers celebrating the "heritage" that's supposed to be the soul of the Southern redneck culture. While traveling 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 of local friends (the redneck camaraderie was palpable) and quiet curiosity seekers feeling a little on edge. The ice was broken when we asked Howard why there were several pictures of former President Warren G. Harding on the walls. Howard 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 he 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. A self-described "educator" on Klan matters, Howard 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." 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 "Whites Only" signs from restaurants, restrooms and other public facilities. He offered to sell me a kit for organizing a Klan chapter in my home town, and suggested that I might buy a Klan hood and robe ($100 for a basic white model; $150 for a brightly-colored leadership version). Selected visitors are allowed by Howard to go down a hall into the Klan Museum, located in a large room at the rear of the building. There, the centerpiece of the exhibit is a cluster of mannequins wearing Klan robes and hoods. The walls are covered with photos 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. And 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."

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