JENNIFER LUDDEN, HOST:
The anti-gay preacher Fred Phelps died Wednesday. He was 84 years old. He was best known for founding the Westborough Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and his religious beliefs stoved controversy and anger. The church claimed that God was punishing America for its tolerance of gays, and led height-profile protests at military and other funerals. Despite widespread condemnation, the Supreme Court upheld Phelps' right to free speech. As well as being a preacher, Phelps was a lawyer. And what you may not know - in the 1960's, he litigated many civil rights cases in his home state of Kansas. Jack Alexander is a retired state fire marshal in Kansas, and also the first African-American elected to the Topeka City Commission. He joins us now from his home in Topeka to tell us more about Fred Phelps. Welcome to you.
JACK ALEXANDER: Thank you and delighted to have the opportunity.
LUDDEN: So tell us, how did you know Fred Phelps?
ALEXANDER: Fred and I, fortunately or unfortunately, are about the same age. And I, too, had been a student at Washburn, and been active here in the city. So consequently we managed to rub shoulders over a few years. And in all actuality, I always got along with Fred. In fact, I went to church this past Sunday, and his picketers were out there. And even when Fred was still out on the picket line, I would stop and visit with him. And I somewhat enjoyed hearing him call me brother Jack.
LUDDEN: So you knew him back when he was a lawyer and involved in civil rights cases then?
ALEXANDER: I certainly did.
LUDDEN: And tell us about that Fred Phelps that just seems so at odds with the one that made such headlines.
ALEXANDER: Well, I think we'd have to just kind of blot out the last recognition of Fred and move back in time. And you would find a gentleman - a southern gentleman, coming out of Mississippi - a southern gentleman who was brilliant, was an advocate for fairness for all people. And one of the things that I always remember that during those early times while there were, you know, a number of black lawyers in Topeka, they were busy doing other things.
They had difficulty simply because of the dollar amounts of things, of being able to take on some of those civil rights fights at that particular time because they had to do things to make money to keep their law offices open. Fred was a little different. Fred would take those issues because he had the wherewithal to do it. And I think his mind and his heart was in the right place in taking on those cases. And it was helped because there were not a lot of black lawyers that could take those issues, you know, in that economic time.
LUDDEN: So when this civil rights lawyer then sort of became someone talking about God punishing America because of its tolerance of gays - I mean, what was the reaction in the legal community that knew him?
ALEXANDER: Everyone just took a 180 degrees turn. You know, I'm a retired military veteran. I'm a black American. While I disagree with his thought process in what I called hate, I would stand in line to support his right to be able to do and to say what he wants to. The hurt that I have is the harm that it created for a lot of other people.
LUDDEN: How do you think Fred Phelps should best be remembered?
ALEXANDER: Again, I come another 180 degrees. I - when I walked to the picket lines, when I would walk and visit them, the thing that hurt me more than the pickets out there - I would see young people, children holding these hate signs. And in my mind, signs that they didn't even know what the wording meant. Now somewhere along the line, there are other children seeing that. Somewhere along the other line, his children, I wonder if they know what those signs mean that they are projecting.
But the bottom line was they had the right to do what they wanted to as long as they did not stand on anyone else's ground to do it. I think in the long run, Fred will, early on, be certainly remembered for the hate and pain that people saw, read about and heard about. I personally think that it may go on longer past Fred. I know a number of the children, and I know unless they have some kind of change, they have that same inner feeling about their protested issues that Fred had. So I don't know when that will die off.
LUDDEN: Retired state fire marshal Jack Alexander joined us from his home in Topeka, Kansas. Thank you so much.
ALEXANDER: It's been my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.