On Saturday, as mourners gathered at Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church in Selma to remember civil rights hero U.S. Rep. John Lewis, Alabama Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) gave the invocation at an annual birthday celebration for Ku Klux Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Mr. Dismukes posted on Facebook a photo of himself with six Confederate flags and a large portrait of the slave trader and Confederate general. He wrote: “Had a great time at Fort Dixie speaking and giving the invocation for Nathan Bedford Forrest annual birthday celebration. Always a great time and some sure enough good eating!!”
Nathan Bedford Forrest made a fortune selling enslaved people, becoming one of the richest men in Tennessee by the start of the Civil War. He signed up to fight for the Confederacy, a white supremacist government based on the idea that, as Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens put it, “the negro is not equal to the white man” and “slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and moral condition.”
Confederate troops under Forrest’s command massacred some 300 surrendering Black soldiers and civilians at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, on April 12, 1864, in what became known as the Fort Pillow Massacre.
In late 1865, six Confederate veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. Famed Confederate Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest led the nation’s first domestic terrorist group as Grand Wizard, and his celebrity fueled the Klan’s growth. In less than a year, chapters spread throughout Tennessee and into northern Alabama, drawing members from every echelon of white society, including planters, lawyers, merchants, and ministers. In York County, South Carolina, nearly the entire white male population joined. Functioning from its inception as a political paramilitary arm of white supremacist interests, the Klan engaged in a campaign of terror, violence, and murder targeting African Americans and white people who supported Black civil rights.
The annual party honoring Forrest at Fort Dixie is hosted by the Friends of Forrest, who advertised it as the 199th birthday celebration with food and live music from the “Unreconstructed Band.” The invitation stated, “This is your perfect opportunity to experience the TRUTH spoken about our history, our heritage, our hero Nathan Bedford Forrest.”
Mr. Dismukes’s appearance drew criticism from his colleagues on both sides of the aisle. Alabama House Majority Whip Danny Garrett (R-Trussville) wrote in a Twitter post on Sunday that he could not “fathom why anyone in 2020 celebrates the birthday of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard.”
The Alabama Democratic Party called in June for Mr. Dismukes to resign for celebrating Confederate flag day, serving as a chaplain for the Prattville Dragoons, a branch of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and for supporting continued state funding for Confederate Memorial Park. Party executive director Wade Perry renewed calls for Mr. Dismukes’s resignation on Monday. “Will Dismukes has demonstrated yet again why he is unfit to hold public office,” he said in a statement. “Americans don’t celebrate racists or traitors. Nathan Bedford Forrest was both.”
Mr. Dismukes took down his Facebook post and issued a statement that was far from apologetic. Alabama Republican Party Chairwoman Terry Lathan said she found his response “to be shallow in understanding why his activities are deeply offensive to so many Alabamians.” Ms. Lathan said, “It is one thing to honor one’s Southern heritage, however, it is completely another issue to specifically commemorate the leader of an organization with an indisputable history of unconscionable actions and atrocities toward African-Americans.”
In an interview with WSFA, Mr. Dismukes said he won’t apologize for being a supporter of his Southern heritage and is “not ashamed of my family and in our service during the war between the states”—which he doesn’t believe was primarily about slavery. He blamed the critical response to his honoring the Klan founder on “anti-southern sentiment” and said he doesn’t see any need for racial reconciliation, calling the Black Lives Matter movement a communist organization.
“We no longer drink from separate water fountains, and we no longer have segregated schools,” he said. “You know there’s abundant work opportunities for all colors, there’s abundant scholarship opportunities for all colors. So what are you asking that needs to be racially reconciled?”
After seeing that interview, State Senator Clyde Chambliss, a prominent Republican and Prattville resident, called for Mr. Dismukes’s immediate resignation. “[T]he real problem is that an elected official in 2020 would attend a celebration of the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings,” Sen. Chambliss wrote in a tweet.
Yesterday, AL.com reported that Mr. Dismukes resigned as pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Prattville on Wednesday after an in-person meeting with church officials.
“It should not be where the state of Alabama is in 2020, where one of our elected officials in Alabama celebrates someone like [Forrest],” Rep. Christopher England (D-Tuscaloosa), chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, told the Montgomery Advertiser.
“We have a state that celebrates Jefferson Davis and protects Confederate monuments,” he said. “It’s not a wonder that we have someone like [Dismukes] amongst our ranks.”