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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Carolina Klan Store Stirs Racial Tensions

LAURENS, South Carolina -- A ragtag cardboard sign that sits in the window of the old Echo Theatre says, "If items offend you, please leave."

For good reason. Now occupying the movie house is the only store in the nation that specializes in Ku Klux Klan merchandise: a lynching photo, knives with blades engraved "Ku Klux Klan," old grenades once owned by the racist organization, KKK pins, T-shirts and caps, including one depicting a Klansman with the slogan "Original Boys in the Hood."

Its presence in this tranquil foothills town has stirred up anger and emotions many thought they had buried decades ago.

There have been demonstrations by blacks and whites in front of the Redneck Shop, which self-professed Klan member John Howard Jr. opened here three months ago.

The shop has been pelted with bricks and eggs and spat on, and its storefront was damaged after a man drove his van into it. Police recently arrested two men at the store -- one for allegedly coming in and ripping curtains off the windows and the other for showing up to defend the place with a sawed-off shotgun.

A coalition of black ministers has threatened a boycott of all businesses around the shop unless they pressure Howard to leave.

Meanwhile, Klan sympathizers have been vocal in support for the store. Some have been helping Howard renovate the old theater, which sits a block from the city square. The Echo's marquee today advertises in large, red letters, "The World's Only KKK Museum."

Howard, 50, who joined the Klan 30 years ago, has vowed to stay in this town of 9,500 residents, 43 percent of whom are black.

The store appears at a time of growing concerns about racial tension in the South over arson attacks on dozens of black rural churches in the last 17 months and a fatal assault last December on a black couple in North Carolina, allegedly by three white soldiers who were neo-Nazi skinheads. Citing the arson attacks and opening of the Redneck Shop, state Attorney General Charles Condon has announced plans to create a special hate crimes unit.

In an interview, Howard denied he was trying to spread hate, and accused his black critics of racism for burning a Confederate flag to protest the shop.

Klanwatch, an Alabama-based group that monitors racist activity, estimates membership in the Klan at 5,500 nationwide. That is half what it was a decade ago and down from 42,000 in the 1960s. Membership peaked at 5 million in 1925 when the Klan, which was founded 130 years ago, and its pointed white hoods, middle-of-the-night lynchings and cross burnings terrorized blacks across the South.

Activists have called on Mayor James "Shot" Taylor and Governor David Beasley to shut down the business. Jesse Jackson also asked the Justice Department to examine whether the store violates the civil rights of blacks. In both cases, it was determined that while the enterprise may be offensive, there are no laws that make it illegal.