No where in the long death notice of William J. (Bill) Simmons published in the Nov. 28 issue of The Clarion-Ledger could you find the words “Citizens Councils,” the once-massive segregationist organization he presided over.
Nor did the obit, obviously written by Simmons, give a hint that the suave, urbane Simmons, 91, was the brains of the organization that at its peak in the late 1950s claimed 80,000 members.
The Council was created at a meeting in Indianola of a handful of prominent Deltans, and even a state circuit court judge, shortly after the historic 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared school segregation unconstitutional. Within weeks, the CC spread like wildfire, enlisting business and professional leaders, even law enforcement officers, in communities across the state as members.
Their purpose, declared the founders, was to maintain “legal” segregation through economic and political pressure, presenting themselves as a safeguard against resurgence of the violent Ku Klux Klan. Simmons, described by a writer as “well-born…(who) pursued segregation as a career the way other men might choose medicine or follow the sea,” soon became the movement’s administrator and public face, based in Jackson.
When Greenville editor Hodding Carter Jr., in a 1955 Look magazine article, described the mushrooming segregationist group as an “uptown Klan,” he was censured by the Legislature, soon dominated by lawmakers who were CC members.
Meantime, black farmers, small contractors or workers who showed any interest in voting, or desegregating of public schools suddenly found their loans called by CC-member bankers, or were fired from their jobs.
Initially claiming it was non-political, the Councils early-on showed signs of flexing political muscle by pushing through a state constitutional amendment authorizing the Legislature to close schools if necessary to prevent desegregation.
Not yet powerful enough to thwart the 1955 election of Atty. Gen. J.P. Coleman (too moderate for their tastes) as governor, the CC was determined four years later to put outspoken segregationist Ross Barnett in the governor’s mansion. Once Barnett was in office, Bill Simmons constantly had Barnett’s ear, getting anything he demanded, including a $200,000 diversion of funds from the State Sovereignty Commission to support the Councils’ magazine and TV program.
Preaching a doctrine of defiance of federal enforcement of civil rights laws, Simmons and his Councils pushed Ross Barnett into a dead-end confrontation with the Kennedy Administration and the federal courts over admitting James Meredith, a black Air Force veteran, to Ole Miss.
When the campus of the state’s prized university was turned into a bloody battleground, endangering the lives of Mississippians’ beloved sons and daughters, people finally began to realize how the state had been led off a cliff by Simmons and his Councils. Consequently, by 1965, the CC had lost its grip over political leaders and public policy.
During the week prior to Meredith being escorted by federal marshals to the Ole Miss campus in 1962, Simmons ensconced himself in a virtual command post at the university alumni house, making telephone calls all over the country mobilizing die-hard segregationists to come to the campus for a showdown if federal marshals appeared with the black student. At a rally in downtown Oxford, Simmons advocated digging a moat around the campus to stop the feds.
One Simmons call went to militant right-wing Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, who several months before had been fired from his European command post by President Kennedy for his program to indoctrinate troops, using extreme right-wing literature.
Walker, now a hero of segregationists, broadcast over radio a call for 10,000 listeners to “bring your flags, your tents and your skillets” and join him in Mississippi to stand with Barnett in a “rally for the cause of freedom.” As to bringing guns, Walker simply said, “that’s your own decision.”
Throughout the night of Sept. 30-Oct. 1 a howling mob, mixed with students, surged over the Ole Miss campus. With bricks, bottles and shotguns, rioters attacked the 60 U.S. marshals (many of them prison and border guards) who after Meredith had been brought to the campus had circled the century-old Lyceum building used by federal officials as a communication post. At the Confederate monument opposite the Lyceum stood General Walker, encouraging the crowd as the riot raged, amid gunfire, tear gas and burning vehicles.
After dozens of marshals were wounded, and two persons, one a news photographer, were shot dead, President Kennedy ordered National Guardsmen, then units of the U.S. Army, to subdue the rioting.
Meantime, Barnett was bunkered at the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson where a cheering crowd of several thousand ringed the building, exhorted by Council leader John Wright, bellowing by a bull-horn from a window in the CC office across the street. Simmons’ rushed back to the Governor’s Mansion during the night to urge Barnett to retract an earlier concession statement. This time, he failed.