William Joseph Simmons
- Not to be confused with William James Simmons of the White Citizens' Council.
|William Joseph Simmons|
|Born||May 6, 1880|
|Died||May 18, 1945 (aged 65)|
|Known for||Ku Klux Klan|
William Joseph Simmons (May 6, 1880 – May 18, 1945) was the leader and founder of the second Ku Klux Klan known as the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan , which he incorporated in Atlanta on December 4, 1915. Under the leadership of William Joseph Simmons the Ku Klux Klan promoted a program called Americanism."
Simmons was born on a farm near Harpersville, Alabama, to Calvin Henry Simmons, a physician; and Lavonia Elizabeth Davis.
He fought as a volunteer in the Spanish-American War serving as a private in an Alabama regiment. After the war he became a traveling minister for the Methodist Episcopal Church. Later around 1912 he became an instructor in Southern history at Lanier University in Atlanta.
Simmons later became a member of two churches and twelve different fraternal organizations. He was known as "Joe", "Doc" (in reference to his medical training) or "Colonel" (referring to his rank in the Woodmen of the World).
Ku Klux Klan
Convalescing after being hit by an automobile in 1915, Simmons concerned himself with rebuilding the Klan, which he had seen depicted in the newly released film The Birth of a Nation. He obtained a copy of the Reconstruction Klan's "Prescript," and used it to write his own prospectus for a reincarnation of the organization. He delayed his plans until the trial and lynching of Leo Frank, the murderer of the young girl Mary Phagan subsided. The sensational murder became a flash point for anti-Jewish feeling in Georgia. Frank was taken from prison and hanged by a mob who lynched him on August 16, 1915. The lynch mob called themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan, and on October 16, 1915 they climbed Stone Mountain and lit a giant cross that was visible throughout the city. The imagery of the fiery cross, which had not existed in the original Klan, had been introduced via The Birth of a Nation. The film, in turn, had obtained the image from the works of Thomas Dixon, Jr. He had taken his inspiration from Scottish clans, who had lit crosses as a method of signalling from one hilltop to the next. The image also occurs in Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott.
As the nucleus of his revived Klan, Simmons organized a group of men including many of the Knights of Mary Phagan, in addition to two elderly men who had been members of the original Klan. Fifteen of them went to the Stone Mountain with Simmons on Thanksgiving Night of 1915 to burn a cross and inaugurate the new Klan. Simmons' later account of the founding included a dramatic account of "a temperature far below freezing," although weather records showed that the temperature had never fallen below 45 degrees that night on Stone Mountain. Simmons declared himself the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
In the first years of the new Klan just several thousand members enrolled but eventually it became more popular and hundreds of thousands of new members pledged allegiance. The Klan's enemies were Blacks, Jews, Roman Catholics or anybody else who was not a native-born Anglo-Saxon or Celtic Protestant.
Later life and death
When the New York World exposed violent affairs conducted by the Ku Klux Klan, Simmons was called to testify in front of the U.S. House Committee on Rules. Hearings began in October 1921 and lasted for over a week. Simmons distanced himself from violent events and stressed the Klan's fraternal nature. Congressional hearings ended with no direct consequences for the Klan, though Simmons lost his influence.
He died in Atlanta on May 18, 1945.
- The Klan Unmasked (1923)
- America's Menace, The Enemy Within (1926)
- "The Various Shady Lives of the Ku Klux Klan". Time magazine. April 9, 1965. http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,898581,00.html. "An itinerant Methodist preacher named William Joseph Simmons started up the Klan again in Atlanta in 1915. Simmons, an ascetic-looking man, was a fetishist on fraternal organizations. He was already a "colonel" in the Woodmen of the World, but he decided to build an organization all his own. He was an effective speaker, with an affinity for alliteration; he had preached on "Women, Weddings and Wives," "Red Heads, Dead Heads and No Heads," and the "Kinship of Kourtship and Kissing." On Thanksgiving Eve 1915, Simmons took 15 friends to the top of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, built an altar on which he placed an American flag, a Bible and an unsheathed sword, set fire to a crude wooden cross, muttered a few incantations about a "practical fraternity among men," and declared himself Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan."
- "Klan Makes Simmons Emperor For Life; Dr. H.W. Evans of Dallas Is the New Imperial Wizard--Clarke Imperial Giant.". The New York Times. November 29, 1922.