My DU colleague Thomas Russell, who used to teach at the University of Texas Law school, has a written a paper, available on SSRN, which urges the University of Texas Law School to rename Simkins Hall, a law and graduate male student dormitory named for William Stewart Simkins. Simkins taught equity, contracts, procedure, and related topics at UT for three decades in the early 20th century. He was also a founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Florida, and every year at UT he gave a formal speech extolling the Klan.
Most of Russell’s paper concentrates on Simkins’ career at UT, as well as the 1954 decision (five weeks after Brown v. Board was announced) to name the dormitory after him. I was curious to learn more about Simkins had actually done with the Florida Klan, so I read Michael Newtown’s book The Invisible Empire: The Ku Klux Klan in Florida.
The Florida KKK organized in 1867–68. Simkins later described himself at the Klan leader in Taylor, Madison, and Jefferson counties. These three contiguous counties are part of the eastern panhandle, east of Tallahassee. As far as the record shows, Simkins never claimed that any Klan actions in those counties had been carried out contrary to his orders, or that he regretted anything the Klan did in those counties. Accordingly, it is plausible to hold Simkins personally responsible Klan activity there.
Federal troops were withdrawn from Florida in July 4, 1868. From July 8 through 14, five blacks were murdered by “white regulators.” In mid-July through October 1868, the Madison County KKK murdered seven more blacks, including Randall Coleman, a leading Republican.
In Taylor County, “masked night riders paraded with KKK flags and threatened farmers who refused to join the Klan.”
Florida’s Governor Reed had purchased two thousand muskets for the state militia. On the night of November 5, 1868, while the train carrying the muskets had stopped at the Greenville station in Madison County, Klan raiders removed all two thousand muskets–destroying some, and keeping the rest. Simkins later bragged that “Every telegraph operator, brakeman, engineer and conductor on the road was a Ku Klux.”
The Jefferson County Klan coerced white farmers into refusing to sell land to freedmen, or to taking the money, and then having the Klan drive the freedmen off his new freehold.
According to Newton, Madison County was the second-worst county in Florida for Klan violence, with 25 murders from 1868–71. The victims were always members of the Republican party.
On the night before the November 7, 1870, election, “armed riders invaded” the town of Madison, “harassing black voters.” On election day in Monticello, Jefferson County, “Georgia Klansmen joined the local mob and hundreds of shots were fired in a rioutous demonstration of white solidarity,” intended to frighten blacks against voting.
The election results left the state government weakly in reconstructionist hands. The store belonging to Madison County Sheriff Montgomery was burned on December 17.
Congress passed a new, stronger Enforcement Act in April 1871, and in November, a congressional subcommittee held four days of hearings in Tallahassee about Klan crimes. Even so, another Republican’s store was torched on November 6, 1871. However, President Grant’s October declaration of martial law in nine South Carolina counties had a chilling effect on the Klan, and by 1873, Florida Klan supporters were denying that there have had been a Klan in Florida, or were claiming that if there had been one, it was no longer active.
Simkins himself happened to leave Florida for Texas in either 1871 or 1873. (Sources conflict.) He particpated in two 1894 U.S. Supreme Court cases, Reagan v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. and Reagan v. Mercantile Trust Co. He supported the Texas Attorney General’s argument that the judiciary had no power to review the reasonableness of railroad rates which had been established by the Texas Railroad Commission. The Supreme Court, in an unanimous opinion by Justice Brewer, disagreed.
That Simkins was an advocate of the unreviewable power of unreasonable government economic regulation should be no surprise. As David Bernstein explains in his book Only One Place of Redress: African-Americans, Labor Regulations, and the Courts from Reconstruction to the New Deal, the caste system of Jim Crow was founded on government power to prevent black and white people from freely choosing to engage in economic relations.
Last Friday, the University of Texas announced the formation of a special working group which will issue a report on the Simkins naming controversy by the end of June.
Simkins should have been denied admission to the Florida bar in 1870, based on his admitted role in the theft of firearms from the militia of the state of Florida, and his role in organizing and leading a terrorist organization which appears responsible for numerous homicides and many other violent felonies. In 1870, the Florida Supreme Court did not know of the evidence regarding Simkins’ terrorist crime spree in 1868–70, but the 2010 working group will have more information.
Of course the fact that a person is an unrepentant, retired, terrorist is not necessarily a bar to being a professor at a prestigious law school–not for William Stewart Simkins at Texas in the early 20th century, or for Bernardine Rae Dohrn at Northwestern in the early 21st century.
Readers who are interested in more on the Simkins controversy may enjoy the blogging thereon at The Faculty Lounge, which has been covering the story since Russell released his paper.
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