Is there another side to the man who has taken his traveling church protests across the country, railing against gays and lesbians? Is there any redeeming quality to the firebrand who protests at troops’ funerals, waving signs with his followers that read, “Thank God for maimed soldiers”?
According to CNN, the leader of the infamous Topeka, Kan. church, Rev. Fred Phelps was once on a different crusade, one in which he fought for civil rights.
Civil rights leaders in Topeka says that as a fresh lawyer in 1954, Phelps took on cases that no one else would touch.
He fought for the rights of blacks with the same passion he now reserves for the condemnation of gays, say [African-American civic leaders in Topeka].
“I don’t know him anymore,” says Joe Douglas Jr., an African-American activist in Topeka who became the city’s first minority fire department chief.
“I see him out there, and I hear the venom that comes out of his mouth. If you had asked me in the ’60s if he would do this, I would have said never.”
It’s a stark contrast to the image of Phelps now — reverend of a church composed mostly of his family members, which went through the Courts recently for protesting a funeral. They say, with loud, bright-colored signs, that the deaths are Gods punishment for the country’s acceptance of homosexuality.
Still, CNN doesn’t hold back the fact that Phelps benefited financially from his civil rights cases:
“Back in that era, most black attorneys were busy trying to make a living,” says Alexander, who attended Topeka’s high school when the Brown case was filed and went on to become the first black person elected to Topeka’s water commission.
“They couldn’t take those cases on the chance they wouldn’t get paid. But Fred was taking those cases.”
Phelps was so successful that he became the first lawyer blacks would call when they thought they were being discriminated against, says the NAACP’s Scott.
“Most blacks — that’s who they went to,” Scott says. “I don’t know if he was cheaper or if he had that stick-to-it-ness, but Fred didn’t lose many back then.”
“He made a fortune on all those cases,” Douglas says. “All the businesses hated him because he was so successful. I think if they discriminated against Martians, he would have done those cases. He could make money.”
Susan Phelps-Roper, speaking for her father, said there is nothing contradictory about the reverend’s former work defending civil rights cases and his messages now — both delivered both in court and “from god”:
“You’re born black. It’s something you can’t change even if you’re Michael Jackson,” she says. “God never said it was an abomination to be black.”
Phelps-Roper also attributes her father’s attitudes to his up-bringing: Fred was born in the Deep South during segregation, a place where the lines of tolerance and religion are anything but clear.