#TBT: Fred Phelps targets the Carolinas, Nov. 28, 1998

Newspaper kick starts #TBT series, gives thanks for the changes in our communities over the past 15 years

by Matt Comer  Editor  editor@goqnotes.com
Published: November 28, 2013 in Throwback Thursdays

From the qnotes staff to you, your friends and family, Happy Thanksgiving!

Given that it’s our collective day for thanks, we thought this would be the perfect opportunity for qnotes to kick start its very own Throwback Thursdays series! We’re starting it off right: With a glimpse back 15 years ago when the Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist clan visited the Carolinas.

The world has changed so drastically in those last 15 years. Marriage is on the move, anti-discrimination laws and policies are being passed on local and state levels, the Employment Non-Discrimination Act is being debated in Congress.

Quite simply, we’re thankful the hate espoused by groups like Westboro Baptist is quickly fading away. But, it’s always good to pause and remember the past, too! Knowing where we’ve been, we can have a greater sense of purpose and direction in where we’re going!

That’s why qnotes is jumping into the #TBT social media craze. Each week, we’ll choose photos and stories from our nearly three decades worth of archives of qnotes and formerly Raleigh-based The Front Page, along with other news and historical sources, and present them here. From time to time, we might even ask for your help in identifying the people in archived photos, some for which we’ve lost or misplaced captions and other data over the years. Have an old story you remember and want it featured? Let us know! Email editor@goqnotes.com with the subject “#TBT,” tweet us @qnotescarolinas or message us on Facebook.

Phelps targets the Carolinas

Fifteen years ago this week, also on a Thanksgiving weekend, Fred Phelps and the members of his Westboro Baptist Church visited the Carolinas in a two-state tour that took them to Greenville, S.C., Charlotte and Winston-Salem, N.C. The photos below, credit Gary J. Minter, are from a Nov. 28, 1998, protest of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. The story clipping from qnotes‘ Dec. 12, 1998, print edition. And, we’ve got the text from a report from Wake Forest University’s student newspaper, Old Gold and Black.

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Old Gold and Black coverage

Westboro stages protest during break
By Theresa Felder, Managing Editor
Old Gold and Black, December 3, 1998
Wake Forest University, Winston-Salem, N.C.

After picketing at Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C., and the N.C. State-Carolina football game in Charlotte, 13 members of the Westboro Baptist Church made their way to Reynolda Road Nov. 28. They chose to “give God’s message from the Bible” near the gates of this university because its anti-discrimination statement includes the idea of accepting homosexuals, said Margie Phelps, 73, a member of the church.

A statement in the university’s 1998-99 Bulletin reads “Wake Forest rejects hatred and bigotry in any form and adheres to the principle that no person affiliated with Wake Forest should be judged or harassed on the basis of perceived or actual sexual orientation.”

The Westboro Baptists were granted a parade permit by the Winston-Salem Police Department to “conduct a protest demonstration” outside the university gates on Reynolda Road. A letter from the special operations division of the police department permitted them “to walk back and forth along the public right of way” as long as they did not block traffic or obstruct the view of drivers with their signs.

The Westboro Baptists protested here also because this university allows homosexual student organizations and because the Wake Forest Baptist Church voted to allow same-sex unions, Phelps said.

Mary DeShazer, an adviser of the Gay/Straight Student Alliance and a professor of English, did not see the protest, so she did not comment on it directly. She said, however, “It is important for any institution of
higher learning to support, indeed to encourage, organizations that reflect the sexual diversity and various political perspectives of its student body.”

Since GSSA is one such group, “its presence here is fundamental to the health and well-being of the university,” she added.

The Westboro Baptists also disagree with Maya Angelou, a Reynolds professor of American studies, who has long advocated equal rights for minority groups.

“We know she pushes that agenda strongly,” Phelps said. Angelou could not be reached for comment before deadline.

The Westboro Baptists knew that most students and faculty had left for Thanksgiving, but they came this weekend because the football game they protested was Nov. 28 and they were on their way from Bob Jones to Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., the church of Jerry Falwell, who “has forsaken what he used to believe,” Phelps said.

Mary Gerardy, the assistant vice president for student life, saw the protest as she was taking a walk along Reynolda Road. “I am glad that they have come and gone,” she said. Gerardy said the protesters did not attract a large crowd, although some people stood across the road taking photographs and several parents stood with their children. “I assume they were using it as a lesson,” she said.

“What disturbed me the most was that there were children (carrying signs),” Gerardy said. She knew beforehand that children often participate in the protests, but seeing them in person had a strong effect on her: “It was very difficult to see them.”

A few passing drivers responded to the Westboro Baptists with obscene gestures. Some people in their cars slowed as they passed, and some drivers turned around to pass by again, she said. Winston-Salem police asked drivers who turned around three times to continue on their way, Gerardy said.

Claire Hammond, an associate professor and the chairwoman of economics, saw the protest as she was driving past.

“I was shocked, saddened and disturbed by the ugly messages displayed on their large signs made out of neon-colored poster board,” she said. “Their messages were deeply anti-Christian and mocked the message of Christ who loves everyone, period.”

Ken Zick, the vice president for student life and instructional resources, asked University Police to videotape this stop on the “motor-coach tour of hate” so he could use it as an example in his Freedom of Speech course that he will teach in the spring.

“We tolerate hate-speech because we believe in free speech,” but we do not have to approve of it or endorse it, Zick said.

Phelps said the group did not come as originally planned Oct. 30 because “other things came up that weekend.”

Based in Topeka, Kan., the Westboro Baptist Church has between 50 and 75 members. They usually travel in groups of 20 at a time, and they have been “preaching this truth from the Bible” for almost eight years, Phelps said.

The members pay their own expenses when they travel, and the group does not accept donations, she said. They do not recruit members, but “if anybody wants to help, they can,” Phelps said.

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