Commentary: The Unsurprising Racism of the Westboro Baptist Church

A former member of the church says that the church’s anti-Black racism should not be underestimated.

Posted: 03/15/2013 05:36 PM EDT

You’ve seen them on the news holding up signs of ignorance and hate as they protest at the funerals of American soldiers. They claim they are a church and are preaching God’s word, but how is that possible when they hold up signs that read: “Pray for More Dead Soldiers” and “Thank God for AIDS”?

We are talking about the notorious, much-reviled ultra-conservative Westboro Baptist “Church” in Kansas that preaches, among other things, that God hates the United States for accepting homosexuality. In addition to soldiers, they frequently picket at the funerals of famous dead people with their signs. The church members, many of whom are children just following their parents’ lead, stand in protest near the soldiers’ resting places in an effort to stir up trouble.

The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the church a cult and hate group. There is also a petition on Whitehouse.gov asking the church be classified as a hate group and to lose its IRS tax-exempt status.

For all their notorious hate, though, for the most part the Westboro Baptists have seemed to have only a few mortal enemies in their sights: gays and lesbians and anyone who supports gays and lesbians. As it turns out, however, the Westboro Church’s bigotry may well extend beyond what people think.

Nathan Phelps is a former Westboro Baptist Church member who fled the church in the ‘70s. Nathan’s father is Fred Phelps, the Westboro Baptist Church’s founder and current leader. According to Nathan, despite the fact that his father, a lawyer by trade, once argued on behalf of civil rights cases, he is still a straight-up racist. Fred Phelps even received two civil rights awards, the Omaha Mayor's Special Recognition Award and an award by the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal.

Just a year later, in 1987, he received an award from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP for his "undauntedness" and his "steely determination for justice during his tenure as a civil rights attorney," wrote the Capital-Journal.

By the early '90s those awards would seem like a mistake, based on faxes from the church with Fred’s name on them that were made public:

And on Jan. 11, 1993, a fax, sent out under the Westboro Baptist Church heading labels a local  Black lawyer as an "INCOMPETENT BLACK WH---" and "BLACK TRASH."

A fax dated May 22, 1992, called a Black politician a "BLACK THUG," a "CRIMINAL" and a "HOLLIGAN."

Nathan said his father is nothing but an old-fashioned, anti-Black hate monger.

This from U.K. paper the Telegraph:

Nate Phelps says the perception in some circles that his father was once this champion of civil rights, railing against discrimination, is laughable. “We would all call Black people ‘DNs’ at home. It stood for Dumb N------ and was our private language,” he says. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”

Nate says Fred Phelps saw an opportunity with the passing of the Civil Rights Act to cash in. “There was a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity,” he says. “And suddenly my father was the man to go to.”

In recent weeks, two of Fred Phelps’ granddaughters have followed Nathan’s lead and fled the church.

It’s not necessarily surprising to discover that the Westboro Baptist Church is as racist as it is homophobic. But it’s always good to find out what people’s true colors are, especially considering that Fred Phelps was once considered a civil rights crusader decades ago.

Now, here’s hoping the other children being raised in this so-called church can one day find the strength to leave like Nathan and his granddaughters did. But until then, that petition is a good idea.

 

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