Brett Bursey first visited Penn Center in the 1960s as a sophomore at Beaufort High School, when he and some other boys ventured to St. Helena Island.
"We were going out to Frogmore because this famous guy was speaking," said Bursey, executive director of the South Carolina Progressive Network.
"It was Martin Luther King Jr.," he said. "We didn't even get out of the car. We watched him speak right at the corner there. There were thousands of black people, and at the front window, the (Ku Klux Klan) was burning a cross."
The rich political and social past of Penn Center makes it a fitting spot for the network's annual fall retreat, which Bursey expects will draw about 100 people from around the state to Beaufort County to talk about progressive issues.
"We haven't been to Penn in four or five years," said Bursey, himself a long-time political activist who was arrested for trespassing in 2002 while protesting a speech by former President George W. Bush in Columbia.
"We're excited to come back. Just walking through the place ... you feel like you're waiting for history."
Many attendees are members of one of 50 network groups, such as Hilton Head for Peace, chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and several labor unions, Bursey said. But he has also heard from a growing number of individuals who want to take part on their own.
"The 2008 election for progressives and liberals in South Carolina was built on 'hope' and 'change,' " Bursey said. "A year later, where's the change? I think people are frustrated with the way the political circumstances are breaking down, both in the nation and the state."
The retreat will give attendees a chance to discuss issues, like national health care, and develop a plan for tackling them, he said. Bill Fletcher, a nationally known activist, author and grassroots organizer, will deliver the keynote address.
"The fight between private and public good is one that is becoming clearer to people because the times are harder," Bursey said. "People are paying more attention now ... to the contradictions in our society. We feel that we represent the interests of the majority of South Carolinians -- working people that are having a hard time getting by."