The Grab to Desecrate Maya Angelou's Funeral
Resulting in a collective grasp of disbelief.
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 of it is turning funerals into circuses by exploiting the First Amendment. He elevated his platform of hate onto a national stage in 1998 by picketing Matthew Shepard's funeral with homophobic epithets and with his signature "shock and awe" placards of lewd and sexually graphic distortions of gay men.
When the notorious demagogue died this March, however, many of us thought the seeds of hatred he sowed did, too. And the belief that not all in Rev. Phelps toxic orbit bought into his vitriolic rhetoric —chapter and verse—was the news from time-to-time of the many apostates and throngs of disaffected Christian followers who eventually left his fold.
One of his son's, 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 inter-generationally 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 church spokeswoman for Westboro, told the press that came 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 march 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 Times' reporter Jeremy W. Peters.
And in 2009 while New York State was still dragging its foot on marriage equality Angelou called three state senators insisting they back the bill. In the Times interview that same year she told Peters,"
In our circus news cycle of "info-tainment" and grabs for 15 minutes of fame it is neither surprising nor incredulous who and why individuals and groups with no interest in Angelou would unabashedly latch onto the news trending about Maya in order 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.”
But get this: the protest act has nothing to do with Angelou.
2MBTDC co-founder Belinda Bee unapologetically told The Examiner, "No we do not agree with her 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, at least temporarily, from protesting without the bullying of 2 Million Bikers to DC scare tactics. And the reason is supposedly out of respect. When Westboro protesters got the news that Angelou's "home-going" service will be a private and not public event, Steve Drain, a spokesman for the church, made a public concession statement stating, “If it looks like that’s not going to end up being a private affair … we’ll shift gears.”
In Westboro and 2 Million Bikers to DC tawdry efforts 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.
Foolish for both Westboro and 2 Million Bikers to DC to think for a moment they could rise in Maya Angelou's light.