Rev. Fred Phelps Sr., founder of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, died around midnight Thursday.
For almost 24 years, Phelps and his small group of followers have made themselves infamous for leading anti-gay demonstrations at natural disasters, mass killings and funerals.
In his mind, Phelps said in a 2006 interview, every catastrophe, attack or misfortune was God’s retribution for America’s failure to castigate gays.
“That’s my job man,” Phelps told KCUR. “To cause this evil country to know their abominations."
Phelps and his followers courted the spotlight for years.
“We’re insisting that this country take the cup of the fury of God’s wrath – we’re putting it to their lips and we’re making them drink it,” Phelps said.
According to Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of 13 Phelps siblings, the Kansas-based church picketed approximately 52,000 events.
The Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, drew national attention for its outspoken picketing, particularly when the group began to picket the funerals of U.S. soldiers that died in the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars.
Brandy Sacco suffered through one of the attempted demonstrations in 2005 when she buried her husband, Sgt. Dominic Sacco.
“They held their disgusting signs up,” Brandy Sacco said. “And they were yelling, ‘Brandy, your husband’s in Hell. God hates you. God hates Dominic.’”
Newspaper accounts, quoting an estranged son, recently reported that church members last year forced Fred Phelps out of the church he founded. Earlier this week, it was reported that he was placed in hospice care.
God’s wrath wasn’t always top of mind for Fred Phelps. Fifty years ago, at the height of the Civil Rights struggle, he stood out as a young Kansas lawyer.
“Fred Phelps, he was one of the first lawyers in Kansas after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 who would take a plaintiffs case,” said Doug Bonney, who directs the ACLU of Kansas. “There were very few lawyers in the early days would take these cases, and there was plenty of race discrimination to be remedied in Kansas.”
Shirley Phelps-Roper says her father, who grew up in Mississippi, attacked racial discrimination with the same spark and fervor he later showed against gay rights.
“That so offended my dad,” Phelps-Roper said. “He didn’t like it. He spoke out against it and he had Bible basis for that.”
Fred Phelps was eventually disbarred, and a few years after that he found his new calling as an anti-gay crusader.
In preaching a message of hate, Fred Phelps became one of the most hated men in America and unified many – not with his beliefs, but against his tactics.
But Thomas Witt, who runs the gay rights group Equality Kansas, says he doesn’t want Phelps death to be an occasion for spectacle.
“We are asking the community to let it pass without protest and without celebration,” Witt said. “It’s what we asked Fred Phelps for decades.”