When news circulated that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, was planning to protest the “home-going” service of our nation’s most beloved citizen, poet, author, civil-rights activist, and sister sage to us all, Dr. Maya Angelou, there was a collective gasp of disbelief.
Rev. Fred Phelps’ legacy, to no one’s surprise, is hate. His signature tactic was turning funerals into circuses by exploiting the First Amendment. In 1998 he elevated his hateful ideology onto a national stage by picketing Matthew Shepard’s funeral with homophobic epithets and his signature “shock and awe” placards of lewd and sexually graphic distortions of gay men.
When the notorious demagogue died this March, many thought the seeds of hatred he’d sowed would die with him. We also believed, given the occasional news of disaffected followers who’d left his fold, that not all in Rev. Phelps’ toxic orbit bought into his vitriolic rhetoric, chapter and verse.
One of his sons, Nathan “Nate” Phelps, the pariah of the brood, is the most noted. An outspoken opponent of religious bigotry and child abuse — and an outspoken ally of the LGBTQ community — Nate stands for social-justice issues that his father decried. Denied the ability to visit the dying patriarch, Nate released the following statement, a son’s elegy for a father whose life had been consumed by hate:
“I will mourn his passing, not for the man he was, but for the man he could have been.”
A hopeful sign that perhaps Rev. Phelps’ campaign of hate had ceased when his coffin lid was shut, that the hate might not have been passed on intergenerationally, came when his granddaughter, Megan Phelps-Roper, made her public statement of contrition:
“I’m so sorry for the harm he caused. That we all caused.”
But before many of us could fully grasp the sad news of Dr. Angelou’s passing — and before her body was even cold, some have said — Westboro was front and center before the press and news cameras, announcing their malevolent intentions.
“The American people are making a mockery of this death because they are treating Angelou like she was their best friend,” Rebecca Phelps-Davis, a Westboro spokeswoman, told the press assembled from all over the country. “Maya Angelou had a platform that she never used to glorify God. Same-sex marriage will destroy America.”
Dr. Angelou was in solidarity with a small cadre of African-American civil-rights activists of her era who personally knew and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — and who spoke up for LGBTQ civil rights.
“I would ask every man and every woman who’s had the blessing of having children, ‘Would you deny your son or your daughter the ecstasy of finding someone to love?’” Dr. Angelou told “New York Times” reporter Jeremy W. Peters.
In 2009, while the state of New York was still dragging its feet on marriage equality, Dr. Angelou called three state senators, insisting that they back the bill. In the Timesinterview that same year, she told Peters, “To love someone takes a lot of courage. So how much more is one challenged when the love is of the same sex and the laws say, ‘I forbid you from loving this person’?”
In our circus-like news cycle of “infotainment” and grabs for 15 minutes of fame, it is hardly surprising which individuals and groups with no previous interest in Dr. Angelou would unabashedly latch onto the news bandwagon, or why: to elevate their platform.
Another case in point: the protest motorcycle group 2 Million Bikers to DC (2MBTDC). The group issued a faux-patriotic clarion call to bikers to participate in a ride to create a “Wall for Maya Angelou,” ostensibly to firewall Dr. Angelou’s funeral from desecration by the Westboro clan. But get this: The protest act has nothing to do with Dr. Angelou.
2MBTDC co-founder Belinda Bee unapologetically told “The Examiner,” “No we do not agree with her beliefs, but we agree with her freedom to have & voice those beliefs. That is what freedom is about! If we attempt to shut up all those who disagree with us are we not doing the same thing as them?”
Westboro has backed off, at least temporarily, and supposedly out of respect. When Westboro protesters got the news that Dr. Angelou’s “home-going” service would be a private one and not a public event, Westboro spokesman Steve Drain made a public concession statement, saying, “If it looks like that’s not going to end up being a private affair … we’ll shift gears.”
In the tawdry efforts by Westboro and 2 Million Bikers to DC to grab the spotlight from Dr. Angelou, I’m reminded of her famous poem “Still I Rise,” which opens with these words:
“You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may tread me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”
It was foolish of both Westboro and 2 Million Bikers to DC to think for a moment that they could rise in Dr. Maya Angelou’s light.