Tom Watson statue generates controversy
by W. Winston Skinner
In 1911, Thomas E. Watson gave a lecture in Coweta County.
Seventeen years later, when local history book “Coweta County Chronicles” was published, Watson’s visit was still considered a high point of the year. The county history’s chapter on 1911 begins with a paragraph on “distinguished visitors of the year” including Watson, missionaries George R. Loehr and Emmett Stephens, and educators Celeste Parrish and Mildred Rutherford.
Parrish, the state school supervisor, spoke in Turin. Rutherford was an educator and author from Athens. Loehr, “a missionary from China on furlough after seven years service,” was also the son-in-law of Mary Houston Allen, a Grantville native who was one of the first Methodist missionaries in China.
Of all those listed, Watson was likely the best known of the “distinguished visitors.” Before making his trip to Senoia to speak on June 15, 1911, Watson had been a writer and newspaper editor, had served in Congress and had been the Populist Party’s candidate for vice president in 1896.
After he died in 1922, a statue of him was placed on the grounds of the Georgia Capitol. Plans to move that statue are creating controversy with members of Southern heritage groups largely opposed to the plan and Jewish and African-American organizations applauding it.
Gov. Nathan Deal issued an executive order on Oct. 4 stating the Georgia Building Authority, which maintains the State Capitol, “shall relocate the statue of Thomas E. Watson from the west lawn of the State Capitol to Plaza Park.”
The order states the 12-foot bronze likeness of Watson “sits squarely in the middle of the construction area” where “an extensive renovation project” is to take place on the west steps and entry area.
Watson’s early political career was one that generally gets accolades from people from all political persuasions. It is his later pronouncements on lynching and his anti-black and anti-Jewish rhetoric that lead to heated debate on how — and if — he should be memorialized.
The whole issue “is a tough one,” said Newnan resident Dianne Webb. Webb is a local genealogist who writes a column for The Newnan Times-Herald and is a member of the United Daughters of the Confederacy as well as the local genealogical society.
Watson “started his career in a noble direction, and was instrumental in the start of rural mail delivery here in Georgia,” Webb noted. “He championed the poor, both black and white.”
Those sentiments early in his career led to his pairing with William Jennings Bryan on the Populist ticket in 1896.
Populism, however, soon waned politically in Georgia. Watson and Rebecca Latimer Felton, another prominent writer of the period, both moved away from their Populist leanings as the 20th century began. Felton, for example, was one of those writing approvingly of the lynching of Sam Hose in Newnan in 1899.
“Around the change of the century, his position shifted to a decidedly more divisive stance racially,” Webb said of Watson. Still, she reflected that Watson’s imperfections were not unique to him.
“As with all of us, he did both right and wrong. Sadly, again, as with most of us, our wrongdoings seem to negate the good that we may have accomplished,” she said.
Webb said she in no way favors racism or bigotry, but she wonders where the “move-Tom-Watson’s statue” breeze might blow.
She noted that State Rep. Tyrone Brooks has applauded the moving of the statue, adding he would like to see those of Sen. Richard Russell, Gov. Eugene Talmadge and Gen. John B. Gordon also removed from the Capitol grounds.
“So when does this stop?” Webb asked. “Do we dynamite the side of Stone Mountain because it offends someone?”
“Many Georgians feel that the decision is aimed more at placating the politically correct views of some lawmakers than it has to do with upcoming construction at the capitol,” read a statement from Ray McBerry Enterprises, the public relations firm for the Georgia Division, Sons of Confederate Veterans. The spokespeople went on to say in the news release that some see the move as “giving in to revisionist history and trying to hide Georgia's true history.”
The Anti-Defamation League last week praised Deal for ordering the removal of Watson’s statue.
“For many years we at the ADL and many Georgians of goodwill have been offended by the statute of Tom Watson standing in a place of honor at the front entrance of the capitol,” said Shelley Rose, associate director of the ADL Southeast Region. “We are grateful to Gov. Deal for acting to move the statue. In doing so he sends a clear message that he will not tolerate the hatred and bigotry that defined so much of Watson’s career.”
Rose spoke of Watson’s “onerous anti-Semitic views during the trial of Atlanta businessman Leo Frank, who was accused of the murder of a 13-year-old worker at the pencil factory where Frank served as manager.” Frank was lynched. Rose also said Watson “used hatred and bigotry to mobilize his voters.”
Born in 1856 in Columbia County, Watson and his wife, Georgia Dunham Watson, survived their two children. When Watson died in 1922, Felton was appointed to his seat. She served only about a day but became the first woman U.S. senator. Watson and his wife, who survived him by a year, are buried in Thomson.