GOP Lawmaker’s Celebration Of KKK Leader Forces Racial Reckoning In Alabama

The backlash to Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes's celebration of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest marks a shift in the state — or at least a beginning
Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes (R) speaks at the annual birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Alabama State Rep. Will Dismukes (R) speaks at the annual birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right who for 20 years was a senior official at the Southern Poverty Law Center. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.

It happened again in Alabama.

A clueless local politician, state Rep. Will Dismukes, a Republican from the white-flight Montgomery suburb of Prattville, attended the annual July birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest — a brutal antebellum slave trader who made millions in human trafficking, a Confederate lieutenant general who presided over the 1864 massacre of some 250 surrendering black Union soldiers in Fort Pillow, Tennessee, and the first national leader of the post-war Klan.

Then he boasted publicly about it.

On a now scrubbed post on Facebook, he put it like this: “Had a great time at Fort Dixie speaking and giving the invocation for Nathan Bedford Forrest [sic] annual birthday celebration. Always a great time and some sure enough good eating!” Fort Dixie is the name given by racist activist Pat Godwin to her home near the majority-black city of Selma, which she describes as “Zimbabwe on the Alabammy.” Godwin and her husband Butch have hosted the party for years.

It wasn’t lost on observers that Dismukes’ appearance at the event — which also produced a photo of him standing behind four Confederate flags — came just a day before the body of Congressman John Lewis, a black civil rights icon who was viciously beaten by police in 1964 on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, was carried in a solemn memorial march across the same bridge. That attack, known to history as “Bloody Sunday,” ultimately led to the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march led by Lewis, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others.

This wasn’t the first time a state politician was nicked by their attendance at the Godwins’ party for the first national Ku Klux Klan leader. In 2004, I and my then-colleagues at the Southern Poverty Law Center revealed that Tom Parker, then running for the first time for the Alabama Supreme Court, had spoken that year at the event and been pictured sporting a bevy of miniature Confederate battle flags. The photo showed Parker standing next to Leonard “Flagpole” Wilson, a racist activist who climbed a flagpole during the 1956 anti-integration riots at the University of Alabama to shout “Keep Bama white!” Also standing next to Parker was Mike Whorton, state leader of the virulently racist League of the South.

But back then, it didn’t hurt Parker much. He was elected to the Supreme Court, and in 2018 was elevated by voters to chief justice until 2025.

This time, as protests against police killings of black Americans swelled across the nation and Lewis was mourned, things went a little differently.

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While Dismukes defended himself by attributing criticism to “anti-Southern sentiment” — and even went on to question the need for Americans to be “racially reconciled” — he was severely criticized by both Democratic and Republican politicians. One Democratic representative couldn’t “fathom why anyone in 2020 celebrated the birthday of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard.” The chairwoman of the state Republican Party found his conduct “deeply offensive.” A Republican state representative wondered why Dismukes would honor “the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings.” The Democratic Party and many other commentators called on Dismukes to resign as a legislator.

Dismukes, the pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, was also called in by Baptist leaders who issued a statement denouncing the “sin of racism” and supporting the “right of people to peacefully protest against wrongdoing.” Within three days of his Facebook post, Dismukes had resigned as pastor.

Dismukes has hardly appeared repentant, although he did apologize for putting the state Republican Party in a “negative light.” And he said nothing about Pat Godwin, his host at the event, who has an infamous local reputation.

Godwin has heavily promulgated the myth that the Selma-to-Montgomery march was the “mother of all orgies,” where race-mixing white women slept with black men. She also decried the march as an attempt to “brown AmeriKa [sic] and annihilate our Anglo-Celtic-European culture.” She has called Viola Liuzzo, who was murdered by the Klan, a communist and drug addict. And Godwin organized and long ran a group called Friends of Forrest, Inc., that for years worked to place a large bust of the one-time Klan leader on public property in Selma.

Alabama, of course, has a long history of racist public officials, going back most famously to the vicious segregationism of Gov. George Wallace. In recent years, that has included a 2015 speech given by State Auditor Jim Zeigler to the League of the South, a group that opposes racial intermarriage and lauds the Klan. Zeigler called the group’s members the “nicest people I’ve ever met.” Earlier, he called removal of Confederate flags from the grounds of the state Capitol a “purge of Confederate history.” He paid no political price for these revelations.

In 2005, then-Public Service Commissioner George C. Wallace Jr., son of the late racist governor, gave a speech to the annual conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that has described black people as “a retrograde species of humanity.” In the audience were former Klan leaders David Duke and Don Black, racist theorist Jared Taylor, arch-racist Ed Fields, and “Flagpole” Wilson. He, too, seemed to pay no political price, although he ultimately lost a 2010 race for state treasurer to a man unforgettably named Young Boozer.

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In the case of Dismukes, who in 2018 claimed a Democratic opponent was being funded by “leftist billionaires” and who has lobbied for “Alabama values,” there now seems little prospect of him leaving his legislative position. Ultimately, most fellow Republicans suggested that it was up to the voters to decide.

That hasn’t changed, even though earlier in 2020 he had also weathered some bad press about his character witness testimony in favor of a former member of his church congregation who was convicted of child rape and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Even Dismukes’ Aug. 6 arrest, for stealing a “large sum of money” from a former employer between 2016 and 2018, doesn’t seem to have spurred him to reconsider. Only if he is convicted would he be forced to vacate his seat.

Alabama, with its deep history of racial apartheid and terror, has begun to change in certain ways as the nation, black and white alike, increasingly faces the original sin of its involvement in slavery, Jim Crow and racial terrorism.

But despite all that, Will Dismukes doesn’t look like he’s leaving his post any time soon, and it now looks highly unlikely that other politicians will force the issue. After all, at the end of the day, unhappily, this is still Alabama.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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Uncategorized // Alabama / Confederacy / GOP / KKK / Racism