William Joseph Simmons
|William Joseph Simmons|
May 6, 1880|
|Died||May 18, 1945
|Known for||Second Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, (1915-1939).|
Simmons was born in Harpersville, Alabama, to Calvin Henry Simmons, a physician, and his wife Lavonia (David) Simmons. He served in the Spanish-American War and later claimed to have studied medicine at Johns Hopkins University. He became a teacher for the Methodist Episcopal Church, South but was suspended by the church in 1912 for inefficiency.
Simmons later joined two churches and twelve different fraternal organizations, which flourished in the early twentieth century. 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
While convalescing in 1915 after being hit by an automobile, Simmons decided to rebuild the Klan, which he had seen depicted in the newly released film The Birth of a Nation directed by D.W. Griffith. 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 media-inspired lynching of Leo Frank, the convicted murderer of Mary Phagan, whose death sentence had been commuted after the failure of appeals to life imprisonment by the outgoing governor. Frank's trial became a flash point for anti-Semitic 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.
On Thanksgiving night, 1915 they climbed Stone Mountain and burned a giant cross that was visible throughout the city. The imagery of the burning cross, which had not been used by the original Klan, had been introduced by Griffith in The Birth of a Nation. The film, in turn, had derived the image from the works of Thomas Dixon, Jr., upon which the film was based. He had been inspired by the historical practices of Scottish clans, who had burned crosses as a method of signalling from one hilltop to the next. The image also occurs in Lady of the Lake, a long poem 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 story 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, a few thousand members enrolled but eventually it became more popular and hundreds of thousands of new members pledged allegiance, particularly in industrial cities of the Midwest. Initially portraying itself as another fraternal organization, the Klan was opposed to the new immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, who were mostly Jews and Roman Catholics, as well as Blacks; essentially, 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.
Having built up his own network of influence, Hiram Wesley Evans succeeded Simmons in the position of the Imperial Wizard in November 1922. Simmons was at the same time elected Emperor for life. The Klan started to decline after a peak of membership and influence in 1925, particularly because of the scandal in which its top leader was convicted of killing a young woman.
Simmons died in Atlanta on May 18, 1945.
- The Ku Klux Klan (1917)
- ABC of the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (1920)
- The Klan Unmasked Atlanta, Ga., Wm. E. Thompson Pub. Co. 1923
- America's menace; Or, The Enemy Within (An Epitome) (1926)
- The Ku Klux Klan: Yesterday, Today and Forever (1930s)
- "The 20th Century Ku Klux Klan in Alabama". Alabama Department of Archives and History.
- "The Various Shady Lives of the Ku Klux Klan". Time magazine. April 9, 1965. "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.
|Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan
Hiram Wesley Evans