The national uproar began after Dismukes posted on Facebook that he took part in a celebration of Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest the same weekend as ceremonies honoring the life of civil rights leader and congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) in Alabama. Lewis, who died this month at age 80, had led protesters in a march decades ago across the Edmund Pettus Bridge on “Bloody Sunday” in Selma.
Dismukes, who represents Prattville, gave the invocation July 25 at an annual birthday party for Forrest at a place called Fort Dixie in Selma. Dismukes’s Facebook post was later removed.
The controversy puts the spotlight on how leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention handle issues of racial discrimination when its churches are autonomous. Dismukes’s resignation from Pleasant Hill Baptist Church took place after local Southern Baptist leaders met with him Tuesday.
“We are saddened and grieved to learn of the recent Facebook post by State Representative Will Dismukes who also serves as a bivocational pastor,” five local leaders wrote in a statement. “In the wake of tremendous controversy, we reaffirm our opposition to any kind of racism.”
Seven church deacons met with Dismukes on Wednesday night, and they voted to accept his resignation, according to Mel Johnson of the Autauga Baptist Association. Johnson said many did not know about the controversy until he met with them and explained to them what had happened. He later clarified that the church has a diverse range of ages but that some members aren’t on Facebook. Johnson said he was concerned about the timing of the celebration and that church leaders were worried about the backlash that it had caused.
“It was a tough decision in accepting his resignation,” Johnson said. “They understand the confusion and the struggle and what took place and how folks can have mixed feelings on both sides of the table.”
Dismukes did not respond to several interview requests from The Washington Post.
Johnson said that Dismukes described his involvement in the celebration as a “lapse in judgment.”
“Perception is reality in the minds of many people,” he said. “We work to shun the very appearance of evil. I’m not saying he had evil intent.”
Johnson said that he would not personally attend an event like the one where Dismukes gave the invocation and that he has been involved in conversations with Black leaders in recent months to ease racial tensions.
“I would not want to be perceived as racist at all,” he said. “What another person does in my denomination, I can’t control that, I can’t judge a person’s motives.”
Southern Baptists value the autonomy of local churches to hire or fire their own pastors, but nationally, leaders are working to amend the convention’s Constitution to create a formal process to disaffiliate churches that do not handle claims of racial discrimination or sexual abuse well. However, what will qualify as racial discrimination is still to be determined. In 2018, Southern Baptists expelled a church in Georgia over charges of racial discrimination, the first and only time in recent memory.
Johnson said that some people want to celebrate their Confederate past while others don’t want to dwell on Confederate history. And as someone who was born in Iowa, Johnson said, he doesn’t want to weigh in on whether Confederate celebrations are appropriate.
“Some people think that what Will did was racist. Others think it was an innocent mistake. That’s not for me to judge,” he said. “Regardless of which side of the fence you fall on, I’m going to point everyone to Jesus.”
Johnson said that many Southern Baptists see themselves as history buffs, but he was troubled when he saw someone online describe Dismukes as a Confederate because he was a Southern Baptist pastor.
“That’s not who we are,” he said.
When Dismukes took over the church last year at 28, the Montgomery Advertiser reported that it had about 100 members. Johnson said that most Southern Baptist churches in the state are meeting with about 30 percent of their usual members because of the novel coronavirus.
Leaders from Dismukes’s own Republican Party, including state Sen. Clyde Chambliss Jr., called for his resignation, noting the timing of the celebration taking place as ceremonies honoring Lewis were happening.
In an interview with a local television station, Dismukes said he was not thinking of the timing of Lewis’s death or the connection between Forrest and the KKK.
“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.”
The birthday party for Forrest is an annual event. An invitation for the 2016 event said: “But, hopefully, we garner another soldier who has come to know the TRUTH about our history and our heritage and has joined the fight to save our noble Christian culture..”
“I know that in view of the past year since June 17, 2015 after the ‘Charleston 9’ shooting, our fight for our Southern history and heritage and our very IDENTITY has certainly escalated to an intensity that appears to have had an injection of steroids,” the invitation stated, according to the Southern Heritage News & Views newsletter. “… Our culture is a Christian culture and Christianity is the bullseye of their target! Western Civilization must be eradicated in order for the one world government to exist! But in the face of adversity, we MUST PERSEVERE!!!”
When asked to comment on Dismukes’s actions, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in a statement that the church must stand “with a gospel that is the opposite of racist hatred or any approval or minimization of the sinfulness of such hatred.”
“Racism is a grave sin against God and against neighbor. Neo-confederate and other white supremacist groups are not only morally wrong, but are also in contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “The enslavement and torture of human beings made in the image of God, and the domestic terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan, are as far removed from the explicit witness of Scripture as imaginable and should be utterly repudiated at every level.”
In June, Dismukes was also called upon to resign from his state legislator position over his support for the Confederacy, Confederate monuments and his membership in a Prattville Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter.