Sunday, November 06, 2005

"Dixieland apartheid's number one organization man"

One of Mississippi’s "most ardent racists," W.J. Simmons, was once referred to as "Dixieland apartheid’s number one organization man" by a political journalist and then tagged "extremist … even by Mississippi standards" by the New York Times.[1]

So who was Simmons and how could one man provoke such reactions? Is it important to know who he was, anyway?

Simmons, considered the “shadow ruler behind Governor Barnett,”[2] had quickly usurped Patterson’s power and prestige, becoming the chief organizer and administrator of the Citizens Councils of America. (Tut Patterson had earlier founded the Councils, himself.)

Further, Simmons later inherited control of a large portion of Wycliffe Draper’s resources,[3] likely making his first contact with Draper via Senator James O. Eastland.

Besides being adept at usurping power, not much else is really known about Simmons’ background. During World War II, he served as a civilian with the Royal Engineers of the British Army and later briefly in the U. S. Navy. Simmons told others that his views on race hardened while he was in Jamaica, claiming that “a caste system had sprung up there among Negroes of various shades creating, endless problems,” wrote George Thayer in The Farther Shores of Politics: The American Political Fringe Today.[4]

It was easy to see why national publications tagged Simmons as an extremist: As editor of The Citizen, the Citizens Council’s official publication, Simmons – “perhaps the Councils’ most indefatigable speaker…reflecting much of the members’ attitudes” according to Thayer – editorially asserted that a “three-pronged attack” was being mounted against constitutional freedoms, “beginning with an attempt to reach an agreement with Soviet Russia, and including recognition of that country and the Test Ban Treaty.”

Simmons once advised “an attack was under way on the white race, that all races were to be submerged in a sea of egalitarianism through integration … to be ruled by a liberal elite in a planned society.”

His articles for the Citizens Councils newsletters typically ranged from school segregation to “the lower intelligence” of black children. One entire issue of the newsletter was devoted to “How to Start a Private School,” reflecting a major objective of Simmons and the Citizens Councils. The editor also wrote such pamphlets as “Why Segregation Is Right” that could be purchased by Councilors."

Perhaps coincidentally, Simmons shared the same name as the Methodist preacher from Alabama who in 1915 reorganized the Ku Klux Klan in the South after it had nearly collapsed. When Rutgers University researcher William Tucker asked Simmons if he was related to the earlier “W. J. Simmons” of Alabama, the retired Citizens Councils administrator would only say he didn’t “talk about the old days.” (The consensus is that Simmons is “probably not” related.)

Numerous Sovereignty Commission files show that Simmons spied on civil rights groups, shared information with agencies including the Commission, and was not bashful in asking that civil rights advocates be harassed.[5]

In March 1964, another Sovereignty Commission report showed Simmons was able to get his hands on grand jury testimony about Medgar Evers. Zack J. Van Landingham, a Sovereignty Commission investigator, reported having a meeting with district Attorney Bob Nichols 'with reference to the testimony of Medgar Evers before a Grand Jury in Hinds County some months ago'. [6]

From the report ...

“Mr. Nichols advised that he had furnished copies of this testimony to Mr. W.J. Simmons, head of the Citizens’ Council, and Governor J.P. Coleman. He said he had only 1 copy left. I told him I would endeavor to get hold of Governor Coleman’s copy. Mr. Nichols stated that if I was unsuccessful in securing the Governor’s copy to come see him again, and he would see that I got a copy….Mr. Nichols advised that there was considerable information relative to the NAACP in Mississippi in this testimony. He said, however, that Evers had been caught in several lies in giving this testimony.”

Years earlier, on September 18, 1959, Van Landingham reported that Simmons contacted him about an upcoming Southern Christian Ministers Conference of Mississippi that included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. along with other speakers from around the country. Simmons wanted "these speakers coming here from out of the state … harassed as much as possible.”

Simmons specifically wanted Dr. King “arrested by the police, taken down, fingerprinted and photographed … [and] had already conferred with Chief of Detectives Pierce about such procedures.”

Van Landingham reported to the Commission that he spoke with Sam Ivy, director of the Bureau of Identification and "Arrangements were made whereby we could use the recording instrument of the Mississippi Highway Patrol…. I will take some steps to see what pressure can be brought to bear on any of [the speakers] and possibly get the meeting cancelled.”[7]

(Excerpt from "Where Rebels Roost, Mississippi Civil Rights Revisited," Susan Klopfer, 2005.)

[1] McMillen, 123; “Racists’ Strategy,” New York Times, September 28, 1962, 22.
[2] William Doyle, “The Making of an American Insurrection,” essay.
[3] Tucker.
[4] Thayer.
[5] The twelve members of the Sovereignty Commission, created by the Mississippi legislature in 1956, included the governor, lieutenant governor, and several legislators. The purpose of the Commission was to prevent outsiders from changing Mississippi’s Southern or segregationist way of life. It was supposed to publicize how well segregation worked and secretly keep watch over those who tried to overturn the system. When it was closed down in 1973, investigators had amassed files on 87,000 people. It was the largest state-level spying effort in the nation’s history, though some other states had lesser efforts of the same sort.
[6] Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission file(s)SCR ID # 1-23-0-33-1-1-1.
[7] Sovereignty Commission, memo to director from Zack J. Landingham, September 18, 1959. SCR ID # 1-15-0-7-3-1-1

No comments: