William Joseph Simmons (May 6, 1880 – May 18, 1945) was the founder of the second Ku Klux Klan on Thanksgiving Night of 1915.
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 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).
While convalescing in 1915 after being hit by a car, 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. Simmons' planning took place during a period which coincided with the lynching of Leo Frank, on August 16, 1915. Frank, a Jewish northern industrialist, had been convicted of murdering Mary Phagan, one of his young factory workers. When Frank's death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment by the outgoing governor, the public was outraged. Frank was taken from prison and lynched by a mob, calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan.
As the nucleus of his revived Klan, Simmons organized a group of friends, in addition to two elderly men who had been members of the original Klan. On Thanksgiving night 1915, they climbed Stone Mountain to burn a cross and inaugurate the new Klan, with fifteen charter members. 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 signaling from one hilltop to the next. The image also occurs in Lady of the Lake, a long poem by Walter Scott. 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.
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 D.C. Stephenson, one of its top leaders 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)