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As John Lewis was honored in Alabama, a state GOP legislator celebrated a KKK leader’s birthday

Alabama state Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) is facing calls to resign after he attended a celebration over the weekend in Alabama marking the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army leader and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. (Alabama House of Representatives)

As ceremonies honoring the life of civil rights legend John Lewis began over the weekend in Alabama, one Republican state lawmaker elected to take part in a local celebration of another prominent figure in Southern history: Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate Army general and the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

On Saturday, state Rep. Will Dismukes (Prattville), who represents a district northwest of Montgomery, participated in an event honoring Forrest’s birthday at a private property near Selma called Fort Dixie. The gathering coincided with the arrival of Lewis’s body in the city where the late Georgia Democrat almost died 55 years ago as he led hundreds of protesters in a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on what became known as Bloody Sunday.

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“Had a great time at Fort Dixie speaking and giving the invocation for Nathan Bedford Forrest annual birthday celebration,” Dismukes, 30, wrote in a Facebook post over the weekend, sharing a photo of himself standing behind a lectern surrounded by several flags of the Confederacy. “Always a great time and some sure enough good eating!!”

Dismukes’s post, which no longer appears on his Facebook page but has been circulated widely online, sparked intense outcry from leaders on both sides of the aisle in Alabama, who panned his decision to commemorate Forrest during a weekend in which many across the state and nationwide were remembering Lewis. The 17-term congressman died earlier this month of pancreatic cancer at age 80.

On July 25, family members spoke at Rep. John Lewis’s hometown funeral in Troy, Ala., in services entitled, “The Boy From Troy.” (Video: The Washington Post)

John Lewis, front-line civil rights leader and eminence of Capitol Hill, dies at 80

The backlash against Dismukes continued well into Monday as Democrats called for him to resign. At least three GOP lawmakers and the head of the Alabama Republican Party also publicly chastised his participation in the weekend festivities.

“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,” state party chair Terry Lathan said in a statement. “I strongly urge his constituents to contact Rep. Dismukes to articulate and share with him their thoughts on his personal actions.”

Dismukes did not respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Monday, but defended himself on social media and in an interview with local media earlier in the day.

“First and foremost, my post yesterday was in no way related to disrespecting the passing of Rep. John Lewis,” Dismukes wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post. “That wasn’t even a thought in my mind. That is not who I am as a person.”

He went on to dispute claims that his original post about Saturday’s celebration had glorified the KKK, writing, “The very atrocities and actions they committed are a disgrace to our country.”

When reached by WSFA, Dismukes reiterated that he had not been thinking about Lewis’s death at the time or the connection between Forrest and the KKK. But the lawmaker — who is a chaplain for the Prattville Dragoons, a chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans — attributed the intense blowback he’s facing to “anti-Southern sentiment” amid the country’s ongoing racial reckoning.

“I guess, with the anti-Southern sentiment and all, and the things that we have going on in the world today, there’s a lot of people that are seeming to be more and more offended,” he told the news station. “We live in a time where we literally are going through cancel culture from all different areas and people are even more sensitive on different issues and different subjects. This was just one of those times that it didn’t quite go the way I expected, and I never intended to bring hurt to anyone, especially my own family with everything that’s been said.”

Since he was elected in 2018, Dismukes has weathered at least one other controversy that resulted in demands for his resignation, reported. Late last month, as monuments recognizing the Confederacy were being toppled during protests or taken down by officials in cities nationwide, Alabama’s Democratic Party urged Dismukes to step down after he voiced his support to continue state funding for Confederate Memorial Park, which is located about 30 miles north of Montgomery, according to the Alabama Political Reporter.

In the aftermath of Dismukes’s posting about the “great time” he had over the weekend, Democrats swiftly renewed their calls.

“This is a stain not only on our history but also on our present,” the Alabama House Democratic Caucus said in a statement Monday night, later adding, “We are well past the point where we as Alabamians and society as a whole can entertain this racist nonsense any longer.”

Saturday’s event honoring Forrest, who infamously led a massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers during the Battle of Fort Pillow in Tennessee before going on to serve as the KKK’s first grand wizard, was reportedly held at a property belonging to Butch and Pat Godwin, according to the Montgomery Advertiser. In 2005, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported that Pat Godwin was the author of an Internet essay about the 1965 Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march, which Lewis had been a part of, and called the historic event “The Mother of All Orgies.”

“This weekend while most people were celebrating the life of John Lewis, a true American Hero, Will Dismukes was in the same city celebrating Nathan Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the KKK,” tweeted state Rep. Christopher J. England (D), chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party. “This should clear up any questions about whose side Will Dismukes is on.”

Dismukes’s actions prompted an equally strong rebuke from the SPLC. In a statement, Lecia Brooks, the chief of staff for the nonprofit organization’s action fund, said, “Alabamians deserve elected and government officials who do not embrace hate or glorify individuals like Nathan Bedford Forrest who are synonymous with anti-Black racism.”

“Rep. Dismukes’ incessant need to romanticize the failed Confederacy even at the expense of the late Congressman John Lewis — one of Alabama’s favorite sons and one of the nation’s revered civil rights icons — is beyond the pale,” Brooks said. “Dismukes cannot be allowed to play both sides of the fence this time.”

The weekend’s events also appeared to rankle several top Republicans, including Alabama House Majority Whip Danny Garrett and House Speaker Mac McCutcheon.

“I cannot fathom why anyone in 2020 celebrates the birthday of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard. And while the body of a civil rights icon beaten by the Klan lies at state Capitol being honored by GOP/Dem leaders from all over the state,” Garrett tweeted Sunday. “This mentality does not rep my party or my faith.”

On Twitter, McCutcheon echoed the statement from Lathan, Alabama’s GOP party chair, stressing that it is up to voters to “police the beliefs, statements, & activities” of state lawmakers in their personal lives. But he noted that he and many other members of the Alabama House “devoted our weekend” to honoring Lewis.

Meanwhile, Dismukes’s attempts to address the backlash prompted a fresh wave of criticism on Monday.

“Rep. Dismukes offered no explanation for why he participated in a birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest,” Lathan said in her statement, adding that she found his remarks “to be shallow in understanding why his activities are deeply offensive to so many Alabamians.”

By late Monday, at least one Republican state senator had joined Democrats in demanding that Dismukes step down.

“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,” state Sen. Clyde Chambliss (R), who represents the same district as Dismukes, wrote on Facebook.