Roy Exum: The Brandon (Miss.) Way

Thursday, April 21, 2011 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

There’s a misguided Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., whose members have a flair for protesting military funerals, spewing hatred and venom, but I’ll bet a dollar to a dime the followers of the Westboro Baptist Church think twice about venturing into the state of Mississippi again with their circus.

It seems last Saturday Staff Sgt. Jason Rogers, who was killed in Afghanistan on April 7, was buried in his hometown of Brandon, which is a small town in Rankin County, located in the center of the state. And, as is their habit, a crowd of Westboro followers loudly announced they would drive down to take their dubious part.
You see, the church leaders believe that homosexuality is a sin and that God is having American soldiers killed in some sort of retribution. A recent ruling by the Supreme Court approved the Westboro method of protests, saying it was freedom of speech. Many of those in Mississippi, however, feel Westboro’s message has no place at a funeral for a Marine who died trying to save two other soldiers.

"As soon as we heard that Westboro was gonna’ be here, we didn't want that to happen," Zach Magee said. "I'm a firm believer in human rights, and I believe it should be a natural given human right to be able to bury your loved ones without negativity brought towards that,"
added McGee, who helped organize a counter protest via Facebook and other outlets.

According to various reports, the trouble started a day or two before the funeral when one Westboro zealot stopped at a Brandon gas station, starting “running his mouth” and – whammo - promptly got a sound Southern thumpin’.

I mean, the earlier protester got splashed with a liberal dose of ratta-tat-tat and was whipped pretty badly. Yet when the police arrived, nobody had seen a thing and all discounted such an incident had ever occurred.

In the meanwhile, patriots for many miles around arrived in droves to wave flags and cross their hearts as the funeral process made its way to the cemetery. Thousands lined the route. They were there, in part, to drown out any protesters’ cries but – wait – the people of Westboro and their gaudy signs never did show up.

Oh, there were signs aplenty, like “God loves Jason,” “Thank You” and “Semper Fi” but the taunts of the Westboro hatred were strangely missing.

To Marlee Merritt, 17, of Richland, the idea that Westboro would come so close to home was infuriating. "It really just (angers) me that they would put the family through that," Merritt said. "They don't need that stuff right now — they're dealing with enough."

So what must have happened? According to Merritt, “This is the Dirty South. We don’t play.”

A popular rumor is that when the news got out where the Westboro crowd was staying and, this some time shortly before the funeral, the strangest thing occurred. A vacant Rankin County car or pickup truck was mysteriously parked directly behind every car with a Kansas tag in the parking lot. I mean, they hemmed the visitors’ cars in, bumper-to-bumper.

Since all the wrecker companies around were “too busy” to lend a hand until after the funeral, the protesters were stranded. Further, according to the tales now being told, the few Westboro members that did get to the funeral were promptly hustled off to be asked what they knew about a crime they might have been involved in.

Yes, after thorough questioning, they were released but it was not – mind you – until the funeral had ended.

Jon Negri, a student at Southern Mississippi, said, "In a round about and direct sort of way, (Westboro) really just boosted the number of people here and support that the family got. Westboro Baptist Church was pretty positive today."

Zack McGee felt the same way. “I really think that was kind of the sole purpose … to keep them away."
"Mission accomplished," he added, nodding.

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