Before Fred Phelps Preached Hate, He Was a Civil Rights Hero

While Westboro Baptist's Fred Phelps will be mostly remembered for preaching that "God hates fags," part of his legacy is also one of a civil rights hero.

Phelps, who died Thursday, was once dubbed the leader of "the most hated family in America" by BBC. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, his advocacy for anti-discrimination cases as a defense lawyer earned him awards from civil rights groups and retribution from anti-civil rights forces.

Phelps arrived in Topeka, Kan., in 1954, the same year that the United States Supreme Court handed down its groundbreaking civil right decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kan. That decision led to the desegregation of schools and opened up opportunities for other anti-discrimination cases.

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To win discrimination cases, though, blacks needed a lawyer to represent them. Phelps was the only lawyer in Topeka, white or black, willing to take those cases, Jack Alexander told CNN in May, 2010. Alexander was a civil rights activist who knew Phelps well in those days and later became the first black elected official in Topeka.

"Back in that era, most black attorneys were busy trying to make a living," he said. "They couldn't take those cases on the chance they wouldn't get paid. But Fred was taking those cases."

Not only did he take those cases, but he was a good lawyer and won many of them, Joe Taschler and Steve Fry wrote for The Topeka Capital-Journal in 1994.

"... Fred Phelps gained a reputation as a sharp, competent civil rights attorney whose eloquent and fiery orations mesmerized juries," they wrote.

In one case mentioned by Taschler and Fry, Phelps defended 11-year-old Carla Michelle Miller, arguing that forcing blacks to attend mostly-black schools generated feelings of "inferiority as to their status in the community, thus affecting their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Phelps was honored three times for his civil rights work. In 1986 he received the Omaha Mayor's Special Recognition Award and an award from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government. In 1987 he received an award from a branch of the NAACP for his "steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney."

In retribution for his work, Phelps was threatened and shots were fired at his windows, his daughter, Shirley Phelps-Roper, recalled to CNN.

"When I picked up that phone, somebody is screaming nigger lover in my ear. That sticks with you. That's not the first time nor the last time I heard that," she said.

Phelps was disbarred by the Kansas Supreme Court in 1979 after he was accused of witness badgering in one of his discrimination cases. Phelps-Roper believes that the disbarment was retribution for his civil rights work.

"Those people hated us for that work," she said. "The state hated us for it. They could hardly bring themselves to be civil because we won those verdicts."

Nate Phelps, Fred Phelps' estranged son who is now an atheist, believes his father only took those discrimination cases for the money.

His father was racist, Nate Phelps told The Telegraph in March 2013. "There was a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity. And suddenly my father was the man to go to," he said.

Matthew Rozsa, a Lehigh University Ph.D. student in history and political columnist, does not buy that. While Phelps did make a lot of money suing Topeka businesses in discrimination cases, there was no guarantee he would win those cases, he wrote this week for PolicyMic. Plus, the rest of his career did not suggest that Phelps was driven by greed.

Many have difficulty reconciling Phelps as both an anti-gay bigot and a civil rights crusader, Rozsa explained, because we do not want to believe that good and evil can reside in the same person.

"It is in our nature to believe that there is an impermeable dichotomy between what makes one person a 'hero' and another one a 'villain.' ... Yet Phelps' life proves not only that they can co-exist, but that they often spring from the same source."

A lesson that can be learned from Phelps' dual legacy, Rozsa adds, is that strong convictions are capable of both harm and good.

"Consequently, instead of viewing Phelps' earlier civil rights activism as an angel to his subsequent raging homophobe's devil, we should see them as different manifestations of a single root drive. We need to recognize that the same fervent conviction and inner belief system that can fuel the cause of justice can also be used to deny justice to others, even though the genesis of both those forces can sincerely hold that each is serving a righteous cause. While none of this excuses Phelps's irrationality or malevolence, it helps us see that everyone - progressives, conservatives, libertarians, centrists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists - is capable of being both a hero and a monster. We all believe what we do as much out of pride and the need to be swept up by a 'greater cause' as we do out of detached intellectual and moral analysis," he wrote.

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