Mike Burden and Reverend David Kennedy’s 24-year friendship had an unlikely beginning.
When they first met in Laurens S.C., Burden was grand dragon of the local KKK and Kennedy, an African-American pastor who grew up in segregated housing. At the time, Kennedy was trying to fight the existence of the small town’s Redneck Shop — a store, which was Burden’s idea, that sold racist memorabilia and hosted an unofficial KKK museum.
“It’s disgusting,” Burden, 50, tells PEOPLE in the latest issue, about returning to the Echo theater, which housed the Redneck Shop and was open from 1996 to 2012. “I put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into that building,” he admits. “Feels like a lifetime ago.”
The man responsible for helping change Burden’s life and hateful perspective is Rev. Kennedy who, along with members of his New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, took Burden and his then-wife in when no one else would. Their story is the basis for the new movie Burden, starring Garrett Hedlund and Forest Whitaker, written and directed by Andrew Heckler.
“I had never had no one love me,” Burden says about why he decided to join the KKK. “That’s what I thought the Klan was for me. I thought it was my family.”
Eight years later, after meeting and falling in love with his first wife, Judy Harbeson, Burden started to question his involvement.
“That’s where I started to realize, ‘Hey, I’m not this guy. I don’t want to be this guy,’ ” he recalls.
The Klan retaliated against Burden for rebelling against them. Burden and Harbeson were locked out of the apartment they’d been renting from a Klan member and with nowhere to go, Burden, Harbeson and her two children, ended up at the Laurens police department begging for help.
For much more on Mike Burden and Rev. David Kennedy, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands now
Incredibly, Kennedy offered to help them he says, because he saw a father and husband trying to protect his family vs. a KKK member.
“The turning point for me was he had the courage to ask me to help,” recalls Kennedy, 67. “I had to feel it, and I had to see it.”
“Jesus Christ did some very unpopular things,” adds the reverend. “When it’s time to help, you do what God wants you to do. I wouldn’t allow a technical reason to take over when human lives are at stake.”
25 years later, Kennedy’s act of grace reverberates for both men, and the town.
“I want people to learn from my mistakes,” Burden says. “It’s the small people in this world who are going to make this change,” says Burden. “It’s not the politicians. It’s the reverend, the people who work.”
Kennedy and his church now have full ownership of the Echo Theater and hope to transform the building into a community and diversity center.
“It will be a place for every race, every religion,” Kennedy says.
For more information and to donate to the rehabilitation effort, The Echo Project, visit rehabhate.com.
Burden is now playing in theaters.
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