For the first time in more than 25 years, the Echo Theater in Laurens took its marquee from darkness to light, illuminating across downtown as a symbolic first step in transforming the theater into a space for healing and forgiveness.

In May 1996, the Rev. David Kennedy, pastor of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church, began a decadeslong fight to transform the 100-year-old Echo Theater, a once-segregated movie theater and later “The Redneck Shop” — and a location where white supremacists and neo-Nazis gathered — into a place of diversity and remembrance.

“This moment has been a long time coming,” Kennedy said. “The Echo Theater has always represented racism and hate until now. This first step toward rebuilding the theater into a place of healing and reconciliation shows that change is possible, even from one of the darkest times in our history.”

Once the building renovation is complete, the new Echo Theater will house a museum and an in-person and online education center that will share the history of racial violence, the struggle for civil rights and the power bestowed on communities through tolerance, justice and racial reconciliation. Organizers hope to raise about $3 million to complete the project.

“We are proud to be a part of this project to design and change the narrative of a building that symbolized hate and segregation into a building that shines with love and diversity,” said Michael Allen, CEO and founder of MOA Architecture Inc.

The multicultural center will empower young people to be positive and peaceful community builders, officials said.

“We are doing something truly monumental here,” said Regan Freeman, executive director of The Echo Project. “We are going to build a world-class education center and museum that will recognize this history of racial injustice. It will confront it directly and it will inspire people the world over to make change.”

Walmart donated $75,000 to support The Echo Project’s mission to rebuild the theater into a place of healing.

“At Walmart, we become embedded in the communities we serve,” said Brooke Mueller, director of public affairs for Walmart in South Carolina. “Our contribution symbolizes the solidarity we feel with the important work The Echo Project is doing here in Laurens. Walmart is right there with you.”

The Echo Project is a nonprofit organization founded by Kennedy, members of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church and Laurens County residents. To make a tax-deductible donation to The Echo Project, visit