United States

Fred Phelps is dead; the truth is stranger than fiction


The infamous bigot, Fred Phelps, is dead. He and his church – the Westboro Baptist Church (composed mainly of his family members) were infamous for picketing funerals of gay people with signs saying “god hates fags”. He was a disgusting hate monger, but his history is very complex and says a lot about US society.

Born in Meridian, Mississippi, Phelps attended various colleges and ended up as a lawyer in Kansas City. There, he became possibly the most active civil rights lawyer in the state! Here’s how wikipidia describes his activities:

“Phelps earned a law degree from Washburn University in 1964, and founded the Phelps Chartered law firm.[17] The first notable cases were related to civil rights. “I systematically brought down the Jim Crow laws of this town,” he claims. Phelps’ daughter was quoted as saying, “We took on the Jim Crow establishment, and Kansas did not take that sitting down. They used to shoot our car windows out, screaming we were n____ lovers,” and that the Phelps law firm made up one-third of the state’s federal docket of civil rights cases.
Phelps took cases on behalf of African-American clients alleging racial discrimination by school systems, and a predominantly black American Legion post which had been raided by police, alleging racially based police abuse.[19] Phelps’ law firm obtained settlements for some clients. Phelps also sued President Ronald Reagan over Reagan’s appointment of a U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, alleging this violated separation of church and state. The case was dismissed by the U.S. district court. Phelps’ law firm, staffed by himself and family members also represented non-white Kansans in discrimination actions against Kansas City Power and Light, Southwestern Bell, and the Topeka City Attorney, and represented two female professors alleging discrimination in Kansas universities.
In the 1980s, Phelps received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP,  for his work on behalf of black clients.”

Ultimately, Phelps was disbarred for a vicious, sexist court attack on a female court reporter.

Phelps was also something of an anti-war activist. He and his followers went to Iraq in 1997 to protest against the US on the streets of Baghdad.

Westboro Babptist Church in action

Westboro Babptist Church in action

Meanwhile, Phelps was developing his ultra-Calvinist religious views. According to these views, “God” has preordained some people to ascend to heaven and the rest to go to hell. He also developed his hatred of homosexuality, and for instance supported Al Gore at one point when Gore opposed gay rights.

What are we to make of all this? How did a civil rights lawyer evolve into a vicious bigot?

It shows the extreme confusion that exists in what passes for intellectual life in official US society. This is a society where preachers are taken seriously for claiming that their prayers resulted in massive floods that broke a drought. It’s the same society in which fashion icons and sports heroes dominate the media. It’s also the same society which has never had a mass workers’ party nor a really mass socialist movement (Eugene Debs and the old Socialist Party came close). Given that, all sorts of twisted and contradictory thinking is inevitable. How the hate-filled message of Fred Phelps developed is an example.

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