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A Legacy of Protests, Remembering Fred Phelps

Westboro protest Flickr Michael Sauers - smallA Westboro Baptist Church protest. (Flickr Photo by Michael Sauers)Fred Phelps Sr., founder of Topeka’s Westboro Baptist Church, has been known nationally in recently years for protests at military funerals. Westboro members say military deaths are God’s punishment for the nation tolerating homosexuality. Phelps died yesterday (THUR) at age 84. As KPR’s Stephen Koranda reports, his national profile grew out of his original protests in Topeka.


Now, the church is known for protests that include brightly colored signs with anti-gay slurs and parody songs. Here’s a protest in New York included in the documentary the Significant Minority.

(Sound of singing)

Fred Phelps came to national prominence in the late 1990s. His church protested the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming who was murdered. Here’s Phelps speaking to Michael Moore about that protest.

“I mean, every (beep) group in the country was using that, making that poor dead boy a poster boy to promote their filth and encouraging all the youth of America to hold him up as somebody to emulate. He was not a good man, this is not a good thing he did. He’s in hell now. That’s what needs to be preached.”

Phelps and the church weren’t always known for this type of talk. He founded Westboro in the 1950s. Phelps was later an award-winning civil rights attorney. But he was disbarred in the late 1970s in Kansas and later agreed to stop practicing law in federal court. Around Topeka before the early 1990s, he was not known by many people for his religious views.

“The first time I saw Fred Phelps I had been called to jury service.”

That’s Joan Wagnon, who was mayor of Topeka in the late 1990s.

“I remember seeing him in the court room as tall, at that point he was a nice-looking man and very, very well-spoken.”

In the early '90s the Westboro Baptist Church began protests. It started with a so-called Decency Drive, aimed at combating alleged homosexual sex in the city’s parks. The protests eventually spread to churches, funerals and other public places. Wagnon says community members decided to counter-protest Phelps, but he was persistent.

“And the churches rallied folks and we’d all go out to Gage Park and we’d try to out-march him. You couldn’t. He never quit.”

Wagnon says Fred Phelps’ eloquence had turned to hate. The city and the church would butt heads as the community tried to create restrictions aimed at controlling the protests. There were legal battles, and a battle by fax machine. The church would send out an array of faxes with personal details or insults aimed at people in the community.

“Nobody wanted to take on Fred, actually, because all you had to do was look his way and you’d become a target for the next spume of abuse.”

That’s Dr. Roy Menninger. He’s a chair of KPR’s advisory board, but in the 1990s he worked with a community organization aimed at combating the negative publicity the church brought to Topeka. Menninger has one idea what may have helped Phelps carry on his work for so many years.

“I think Fred was, whatever else, was primarily a showman, he was an exhibitionist. He wanted attention. He’d make whatever noise, shout whatever insults necessary to get whatever attention he wanted.”

Menninger says Fred Phelps also leaves a family legacy. His 13 children grew up in the church, though some have left it. Margie Phelps, one of Fred’s daughters who is still in the church, says her father should be remembered as a servant of god.

“He stood representative of the standard of god. No fornication, no adultery, no sodomy, no same-sex marriage. If a society goes that direction, that society is doomed.”

She says there will not be a funeral for Fred Phelps. Towards the end, Phelps was reportedly voted out of the church he started after a power struggle in the organization. LGBT advocates are asking people to be respectful of the Phelps family and not to respond to the news with the same kind of anger often prompted by the church.

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