When news circulated that the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in 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. And his signature stamp is turning funerals into circuses by exploiting the First Amendment. He elevated his hateful platform onto a national stage in 1998 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 sowed died with him. We believed as well that not all in Rev. Phelps' toxic orbit bought, chapter and verse, into his vitriolic rhetoric -- especially because we heard the occasional news of the throngs of disaffected Christian followers who left his fold.
One of his sons, Nathan "Nate" Phelps, the pariah of the brood, is the most noted. As a national spokesperson on religious bigotry and child abuse -- and an outspoken LGBTQ ally -- Nate stood for social justice issues that his father decried.
Denied visitation rights to see his dying patriarch, Nate released the following statement when Phelps Sr. died that reflected a son's elegy of a father's life consumed with 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 ceased when his coffin lid was shut and it might not have been passed on intergenerationally was 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 Angelou's passing -- and some even say before her body got cold -- 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 church 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."
Angelou was in solidarity with a small cadre of African-American civil rights activists of her era who personally knew and marched with Martin Luther King -- 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?' Angelou told New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters.
In 2009, while New York State was still dragging its feet on marriage equality, Angelou called three state senators, insisting they back the bill. In the Times interview 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 news cycle of "info-tainment" and grabs for 15 minutes of fame, it is hardly surprising that individuals and groups with no interest in Angelou would unabashedly latch onto the news bandwagon about Maya to elevate their platform. Case in point, the protest motorcycle group 2 Million Bikers to DC.
In their feigned patriotic call to firewall Angelou's funeral from the Westboro klan desecrating it, 2 Million Bikers to DC (2MBTDC) made a national clarion call to bikers to participate in a ride to create a "Wall for Maya Angelou."
2MBTDC co-founder Belinda Bee unapologetically told The Examiner, "No, we do not agree with [Angelou's] beliefs. We are riding to protect her funeral from WBC. If we allow WBC to protest her funeral, what will stop them from protesting one of our funerals?"
Westboro has backed off from protesting, at least temporarily and supposedly out of respect. When Westboro protesters got the news that Angelou's "home-going" service will 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 Maya 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.
How foolish for both Westboro and 2 Million Bikers to DC to think for a moment they could rise in Maya Angelou's light.