Fred Phelps was born in Mississippi in 1929. By all accounts his childhood was tragic: his father worked on the railroads during the Great Depression and his mother died of cancer when he was five, leaving his aunt to raise him. Despite this, Nate says he and his siblings were told that their father was a star pupil, a Golden Gloves boxer and an Eagle Scout, the highest rank attainable, albeit one some people remembered as having an “antagonistic bent”. Fred met Margie Simms, Nate’s mother, in 1952 while they were both attending the Arizona Bible Institute. Twelve years later he graduated with a law degree from a university in Kansas and fought various civil rights suits in the Sixties. According to local reports, he gained a reputation as a sharp, competent attorney “whose eloquent and fiery orations mesmerised juries”. Two decades later, he received awards from the Greater Kansas City Chapter of Blacks in Government and a local branch of the human rights group the NAACP.
But Nate Phelps says the perception in some circles that his father was once this champion of civil rights, railing against discrimination, is laughable. “We would all call black people ‘DNs’ at home. It stood for Dumb N------ and was our private language,” he says. “We thought it was clever to call them that in front of them. He was deeply prejudiced, and he believed the Bible said they were cursed.”
Nate says Fred Phelps saw an opportunity with the passing of the Civil Rights Act to cash in. “There was a lot of money, and a lot of opportunity,” he says. “And suddenly my father was the man to go to.” At the same time, Nate says, he and his siblings were being fed a distorted version of the Bible. “We were told we were the only people left on Earth; the only ones who were going to be saved.” Nate says his father became an itinerant preacher, attempting to save Mormons in Utah and Native Americans in the south west, and believing that he was never going to die.