The Most Hateful Man In America Started As A Good Guy

By Nolan Moore on Monday, April 14, 2014
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“Hatred is a vice of narrow souls; they feed it with all their meanness, and make it a pretext for sordid tyranny.” —Honore de Balzac, The Muse of the Department

In A Nutshell

One of the worst bigots in modern history, Fred Phelps was well known for his homophobia and overall hatred of humanity in general. However, there was a time when this repugnant pastor was actually a force for good. Believe it or not, during the ’60s and ’70s, Fred Phelps was a civil rights attorney.

The Whole Bushel

The late Fred Phelps was not a pleasant man. It’s no secret the Westboro Baptist pastor hated gays, despised Jews, and regularly thanked God for dead soldiers. Whenever there was a military funeral or a national tragedy, Phelps and his crazy cult were always on hand with sickening signs and disgusting sound bites. However, for all his vitriol, Phelps has a very surprising past. Despite his loathing for just about everyone and everything, there was a time when Fred Phelps, leader of “America’s most hated family,” was a civil rights attorney.

Before starting his infamous church, Fred Phelps worked as a lawyer in Topeka, Kansas. After he graduated from Washburn University in 1964, he opened the Phelps Chartered Law Firm and made a very risky move for a young lawyer. He started defending the rights of persecuted African Americans. In fact, Phelps often helped clients that no other attorneys, white or black, would even think about representing. Anti-discrimination cases weren’t exactly profitable in the 1960s, and there was a real chance that Phelps wouldn’t make any money for all his work. Nevertheless, he became a champion of civil rights, and when black Kansans felt discriminated against, they went to see Phelps.

On several occasions, Fred took on the Topeka School District, claiming it discriminated against non-white students. And when police officers raided a predominantly black American Legion, threatening everyone inside and strip-searching the women, Phelps agreed to defend the victims in court. Once he even showed up on a local TV station to lecture citizens on the evils of racism.

For his work, Phelps received a mixture of admiration and death threats. Some people insulted his family over the phone and even shot up the windows of his house. On the other hand, Phelps won multiple awards for his civil rights work, including one in 1987 from the Bonner Springs branch of the NAACP. However, his law career came to a crashing halt long before he started winning awards. In 1979, he perjured himself in a non–civil rights case and was disbarred from practicing law in Kansas.

So what exactly happened to Fred Phelps? When he did go from a champion of freedom to a hatemongering homophobe? Well, there are some who argue that Phelps was never as tolerant of African Americans as he pretended to be. Nate Phelps, his son who famously renounced the Westboro cult, claims his dad was secretly a racist and used derogatory terms for black people when they weren’t around. And troubling faxes from the Kansas church contained phrases like “black trash,” “black thug,” and “black bullies beat white kids and women.” On the other hand, Westboro’s website denounces groups like the KKK and the Aryan Nation. Phelps himself even once declared, “God Almighty, you understand, never said it’s an abomination to be black.” So while his message of hate was undoubtedly evil, perhaps there was a time when the controversial pastor really did care about racial equality. Perhaps.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: JC Wilmore
PolicyMic: The Creator Of Westboro Baptist Used to Be a Die-Hard Civil Rights Fighter—What Happened?
CNN: ‘Most-hated,’ anti-gay preacher once fought for civil rights
The Topeka Capital-Journal: As a lawyer, Phelps was good in court
Brainwashed by the Westboro Baptist Church (video)