An Unlikely Civil Rights Activist: Fred W. Phelps Sr. and Race Relations in Topeka, 1964-1989

Lecture Description

This lecture uncovers the surprising record of the civil rights litigation practice of Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr., founder of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, in eastern Kansas in the early decades after Brown v. Board of Education (1954). A native of Mississippi, Phelps earned his law degree at Topeka’s Washburn University in 1964 and founded a family law practice not far from the state capitol. In the early 1970s, he began filing dozens of lawsuits in the federal district courts alleging discrimination against his clients on the basis of race, sex, and religion. Though he developed a reputation as a lawyer who preferred litigation to negotiation, he also proved tenacious once his cases came to trial, particularly when the defendants were corporate employers or, in one notable example, the Topeka Board of Education itself, which, twenty years after Brown, had still failed to address the unequal nature of primary and secondary educational facilities in the city. The lecture will attempt to explain how someone so devoted to civil rights for racial minorities and women could then make himself notorious as a hate speaker in opposition to civil rights for gay and lesbian individuals after 1990.


Civil Rights Constitutional and Legal

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Victoria Saker Woeste

VIEW SPEAKER : Victoria Saker Woeste

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