It’s about time.
The imposing — some would say forbidding — statue of Thomas E. Watson has stood at the front entrance of the Georgia State Capitol since its unveiling in December 1932 and has withstood numerous efforts to remove it over the decades. Now, at long last, Gov. Nathan Deal has ordered its relocation to a less visible park across the street from the Capitol grounds. The Anti-Defamation League applauds this move.
Watson was a powerful Georgia political leader and journalist who began his career as a populist, arguing for better living and working conditions for rural Georgians, black and white. But as the beginning of the 20th century neared, he evolved into a demagogic bully, rallying Georgians around his fiery denunciations of blacks, Jews and Catholics.
Watson railed against them repeatedly in the pages of his magazine, The Jeffersonian. He helped revitalize the Ku Klux Klan and is credited with organizing its first cross-burning. He wrote about the “superiority of the Aryan” and stood “squarely for white supremacy.”
His anti-Semitic attacks on Atlanta Jewish businessman Leo Frank — accused of the 1913 murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan — were so poisonous that many believe he inspired the hatred that led to Frank’s lynching. An article published in The New York Times the day after Frank was killed reported that Watson’s writings about Frank “preclude their reproduction in any respectable newspaper.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the Watson statue has sparked so many cries for its removal from the Capitol.
Some critics of the move acknowledge Watson’s controversial past but argue that it is problematic to try to erase our history — good or bad. They contend that the statue can serve today as a reminder that Georgia’s past does include a dark side represented by bigots like Watson. But the Capitol must represent fair and equal government for all. The statue’s current prominent display implicitly endorses Watson’s dark side, conveying an official message of exclusion and marginalization to many Georgians. Such a message is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.
We recognize that moving the statue from the Capitol grounds is a symbolic gesture and would not greatly change the practical status of race relations in Georgia today. However, symbols matter. Having the Watson statue occupy a place of particular honor, standing at the main entrance to the Capitol building where it cannot escape the notice of thousands of school children and others who visit the Capitol every day, sends the wrong message.
Surely we don’t want to hold him up as an example of a great leader in our state’s history. The statue needs to be moved to a place where Watson’s historical significance can be remembered, but his message of hate and bigotry can be distanced from our state government.
Ironically, it appears that the plaque on the Watson statue will survive its relocation. It reads, in part, “Honor’s the path he trod … a champion of right who never faltered in the cause.” Whatever he tried to accomplish for good early in his public life, by embracing bigotry and hatred, Watson chose an eventual path of dishonor.
Now is the time to show the people of Georgia that we are distancing ourselves from these beliefs. It has been over 90 years since Tom Watson’s death. It is time to remove his statue from our state Capitol grounds.
Shelley Rose is associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, Southeast Region. Posted Oct. 30, 2013
Source: AJC Blog