To Speak for the Dead,
Warts and All: Fred Phelps, an (at best) mixed legacy, and how we remember ourselves
(Note: I do not endorse Fred Phelps or the Westboro Baptist Church, their actions or their views. I cannot repeat that enough)
Fred Phelps is dying, and the general consensus on the internet is that this is a good thing for humanity. And there are a lot of people in the world who will be better for his passing. But there is another side that people often don’t know, and it bears remembering as we consider the life of this hateful man.
The startling fact is that if Fred Phelps had died in 1980 he would have gotten all but a hero’s funeral, and if he had died in 1975 there would probably be a memorial to him on the grounds of Washburn Law School—the law school that he and I share as alumni.
Long before he was known for protesting soldier’s funerals, and even before he was known for turning a routine courtroom examination into a medieval ordeal, Fred Phelps was a noted civil rights attorney. If you go to the Phelps Chartered building in Topeka you can find a fascinating array of pictures of Phelps in civil rights marches, and the man himself proudly said that he helped litigate Jim Crow laws out of Topeka and out of Kansas.
During his law career, Phelps represented African Americans in a variety of struggles against injustice and unfair laws. He fought school systems and American Legion posts, Kansas City Power and Light and Kansas Universities—Wikipedia has a whole list, some of which I had heard and some of which I hadn’t known. He was given an award by a chapter of the NAACP in Bonner Springs, Kansas and by the Greater Kansas City chapter of Blacks in Government.
He was extremely religious all this time, and probably held the beliefs that would come to define him later in life. But he was doing good work in a cause that nearly everyone would agree is just. He was probably always corrupt in the ways that would lead to his disbarment, but he was using the skills he was taught in order to fight the good fight. And he was reportedly physically abusive, but would not have been the first public figure who had positive works in public balanced by horrible ones in private.
To Speak for the Dead
So what is the point of bringing this up? It is certainly not to defend Phelps, his views, or his actions. I do not, cannot, believe in a God that rejoices in anyone’s death or one that hates anyone for a sexual choice. I will never condone violence against family members, or anyone save in very limited circumstances. I have no desire to see a statue built to a man of hate in the halls of an institution that taught me to love justice.
But as a culture we have no room for complex people, and that is to our detriment. We paint over the warts of our own history to provide heroes that are unfailingly good, and villains that are unfailingly bad. We remove the humanity of our own past so that we can provide a tidy narrative, and in doing so we rob ourselves of a true connection to the events of the past. There is no man or woman who has lived that does not have some sympathetic quality, some kernel of shared human experience that deserves to be remembered.
Fred Phelps is not a demon. He was not birthed from pure evil, and will not return to whatever lies beyond with a legacy that is purely evil. There are lives in the world that are quantifiably better because he lived. And while it may never balance out the damage that he has done, it still deserves to be remembered.
And the other side is that there is no good person who has ever been without evil, or at least pettiness and smallness. Whether because of the limitations of their time (for men such as Jefferson who spoke so highly of equality and yet kept slaves) or because they were simply human (Henry Ford built the modern world, but was shockingly anti-Semitic even for his time). When we tell stories and histories that sanitize them of their flaws we remove the things that allow us to identify with them. We turn men like Washington into gods astride the world, and men cannot identify with gods.
It was ironically in the words of another man now noted more for his bigotry than his works, Orson Scott Card, that we can find inspiration for this. At the end of Ender’s Game and the books that follow it, Ender becomes a Speaker for the Dead. He founds a group of people who come to tell the story of a human’s life after their passing, the whole story from the positive to the negative. They don’t hide either side, so that the family can remember the real person, not a hagiography or a condemnation. So that a real human can be remembered, with all the positive and negative lessons that come from their lives accessible.
And in the end that is the point. When Fred Phelps passes from this world, tell his story. Tell the story of a man who hated with all his being and stained a family, a church, and a town with that hate. Protest his funeral if you want to, because while I would never do it myself I can’t deny the appeal of protesting the funeral of a family that fought for the constitutional right to protest at funerals. But also tell the story of a man who spent hundreds of hours fighting hate before his life was overtaken by it, and brought a great deal of good to a number of people. Tell all of the story so that we can learn what the lesson of his life is, and so that someday a person who has done great things and feels the stirrings of hate can learn what that looks like.