By Todd Stacy
This piece was originally published in the July 29 issue of Inside Alabama Politics.
For much of the weekend, the eyes of the nation were on Alabama as the late Congressman John Lewis, native son and Civil Rights hero, made one last passage through his home state on the way to the nation’s capital. From the memorial service at Troy University to the images of his casket crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge and climbing the stairs to the State Capitol, Alabama shone in the spotlight. The events were meaningful and moving, and we almost pulled the whole thing off without a hitch. Almost.
Few knew that on Saturday in Selma, mere miles from that bridge, a group of Confederate sympathizers was gathering to celebrate the life of their “hero” Nathan Bedford Forrest, noted Civil War battlefield general and the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In fact, very few ever would have known. These groups rarely send out press releases, after all. But they do send invitations (see below).
Enter State Rep. Will Dismukes, the 30-year-old upstart Republican from Prattville. Dismukes spoke and led the invocation at the celebration, then posted a picture of it on Facebook with a full complement of Confederate flags in front of him and a portrait of Forrest behind him. Everyone knows what happened next. Within hours, Dismukes’ post caught the eye of the Alabama political universe and the freshman lawmaker was the subject of ridicule and condemnation on social media. By Monday, stories began to fill the internet and airwaves along with bi-partisan calls for Dismukes’ resignation.
But wait a minute. This isn’t the first time Dismukes has attended Confederate events or even been criticized for it. In fact, he is known for his affection for the antebellum, his disposition for Dixie, his connection with the Confederacy, his bond with the boys in gray. He sometimes wears a Stars & Bars lapel pin. He is not only a member of the local Sons of Confederate Veterans, but the group’s chaplain. Earlier this year, Dismukes attended a “Confederate Flag Day” event at Confederate Memorial Park and was criticized on social media, but that came mostly from liberals, making it easy for Dismukes to chalk it up to “cancel culture” and the like. Why would this episode be any different?
Because it hits different. Specifically, Nathan Bedford Forrest makes it hit different.
The Confederacy at large is harder to pin down, especially in the South. Forrest is specific and his atrocities are easy to assemble once they are laid bare. He bought men, women and children. He sold men, women and children. He massacred black people. After the war, he terrorized a generation of African Americans made free despite his best efforts in battle. Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, and celebrating his life is unimaginable to anyone who understands that.
Perhaps most amazing in the entire ordeal is how Dismukes was seemingly surprised that his participation in the birthday party offended anyone. He told WSFA he knew nothing about Forrest’s involvement in the KKK nor did he know Lewis’ memorial was passing through Alabama that weekend. First of all, one doesn’t need a history degree to know that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Klan leader. We all learned that from watching Forrest Gump. Lighthearted as the movie scene may have been, it was hard to miss, so nobody gets a pass on that. Second of all, Dismukes knew enough about Forrest to warrant driving outside his district for a birthday celebration, and yet this dues-paying SCV member and officer had no idea about Forrest’s infamous leadership of the KKK in the years after the Civil War? That’s one of three things: willful neglect, tragic ignorance or bullshit. Either way, it’s not a good look.
Not surprisingly, Alabama Democrats quickly called for Dismukes’ resignation. But again, they did that last time. What was interesting this time is Republicans’ response to the situation. Statements have ranged from pretty strong (ALGOP Chairman Terry Lathan and House Majority Whip Danny Garrett, R-Trussville) to pretty milquetoast (Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon), but the fact that there are statements at all tells you this is different. By far the most scathing Republican criticism came from State Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who shares a hometown and a constituency with Dismukes. “He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people of District 88,” the usually reserved Chambliss said. “The post is bad enough, the timing is even worse, but the 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. He has had 24 hours to understand why people are so upset, but his interview on WSFA a few moments ago confirms that he is lacking in understanding and judgement – he should resign immediately.” That’s a stinging indictment and a damning vote of no confidence from Dismukes’ upper chamber colleague.
The question is, will it matter? Is Dismukes’ job actually in danger? After all, being a SCV member and wearing a Confederate flag pin might keep a lad like Dismukes from ascending to higher office, but it probably won’t stop him from getting reelected in Autauga and Elmore counties. But what about celebrating a Klan leader and, when confronted about it, not apologizing?
It is unlikely that Dismukes will resign. He has a strong enough cadre of supporters and sycophants to surround him and convince him that he’s the real victim here. He could be vulnerable in a 2022 reelection run, but not just because of the Confederate stuff. Dismukes had barely brought his hand down from taking the oath in the State House before he started publicly flirting with higher office, first the U.S. Senate and then the U.S. House of Representatives. He eventually dropped out of the House race, but the dalliance damaged him in the eyes of some hometown folk. These liaisons also took him to Washington, D.C. during the 2019 legislative session and caused him to be absent for votes, which were somehow cast anyway. For example, his “present” vote on the lottery bill that session kept the legislation from advancing even though he wasn’t in the chamber. These are all potential vulnerabilities once brought out on the campaign trail. Then there’s the money game. He made few friends in Montgomery voting against the Rebuild Alabama infrastructure plan, so it was already going to be hard to count on the broad coalition of business groups that supported that bill. The Alabama Education Association was Dismukes’ largest donor in 2018 at $25,000, but it would be easy to see how theirs and other groups’ money might dry up given a controversy involving three Ks. With that said, Dismukes won the 2018 GOP Primary Runoff with 72% of the vote as a first time candidate, so even with baggage and without backing, he remains a formidable candidate.
The biggest liabilities might not be for Dismukes himself, but rather for the Alabama Republican Party, both electorally and legislatively. There’s a reason Lathan didn’t waste time or mince words. She gets it. She’s trying to elect Tommy Tuberville in a high-profile race to reclaim a traditionally Republican Senate seat, and this isn’t helping. Tuberville would surely rather talk about Doug Jones than Will Dismukes. There is also talk of the Executive Committee of the Alabama Republican Party formally rebuking or censuring Dismukes at its meeting this coming weekend. It’s too early to say if that will actually happen, but it’s worth noting that not one Alabama elected official has come to Dismukes’ defense. However, the only thing worse than the ALGOP not taking action would be having a censure vote fail.
To be sure, the pain for Republicans will be most acutely felt in the Alabama Legislature, and specifically the House of Representatives. On every bill, every vote and every motion, House Democrats are going to bring up Dismukes and his Klan clambake. As agonizing as that will be for Republicans to sit through for ten minutes at a time, it will be even more so the moment someone slips up and responds insensitively, creating the kind of moment that brings sessions to a grinding halt. And Dismukes doesn’t have to be at the mic or even in the room for all this to take place.
Seasoned Alabama politicos will remember a similar situation that ensued with former State Sen. Scott Beason, who was recorded on a federal wire (which he was wearing) referring to African Americans as “aborigines.” An embarrassed Beason couldn’t apologize enough, but it still caused a real ruckus in the Senate and ultimately cost him his Rules Committee chairmanship.
Dismukes doesn’t have a chairmanship to strip or even a plum committee assignment to take away. There is little House leaders can do beyond publicly condemning the comments and privately urging him to walk away or at least try to make amends. Expect both to happen more in the coming days.
Since the publication of this article, Dismukes has faced additional political and legal troubles, including a late filing of his required statement of economic interest and an arrest for felony theft in Montgomery County. Read further at Alabama Daily News.