The Fate of Offensive Georgia Statue Hangs in the Balance

Copyright Peter Radunzel

Copyright Peter Radunzel

What do you do with a memorial to someone you don’t want to memorialize anymore? If recent military history is any indication, you topple the monuments to the old ways as soon as possible. What happens when the revolution is one of the mind? What happens when the hearts and minds of a country change, rendering the ideals and values a memorial stands for obsolete? In the case of Thomas E. Watson, photographed here at the Georgia State Capitol, your statue gets moved.

Watson was a Georgia politician, first elected to the state legislature in 1882 at the tender age of 26. The young Watson proved to be an idealistic champion of reform, fighting unsuccessfully against the corruption rampant among railroad companies in the state. In 1890, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat. His crowning achievement during his time in Congress was authoring the bill that made Rural Free Delivery a reality. RFD created the system of roadside mailbox delivery from the U.S. Post Office still used today. prior to that time, residents of rural communities had to collect mail in the nearest town. Watson soon threw his allegiance to The Populist Party, a short-lived third party collection of reformers hostile to a national bank, railroads, and wealthy elites. In 1896, he was the Populist Party’s candidate for Vice-President, receiving 217,000 votes.

After his time in Congress, Watson began a lucrative career newspaper publisher. As his personal wealth grew, his political views began to shift. Gone were his agrarian and socialist sympathies. He was still the Populist Party standard-bearer, however, being nominated by the party for President in both 1900 and 1904. His views became increasingly anti-Catholic, even going so far as to call for the re-creation of the Ku Klux Klan. In 1913, Watson advocated the lynching of convicted Jewish-American factory superintended Leo Frank for the murder of a 13-year-old female factory worker named Mary Phagan. When prominent citizens of Marietta, Georgia did just that in 1915, Watson lauded the act in the pages of his newspaper.

Watson died in 1922 at the age of 66. Ten years later, a statue was dedicated to him near the entrance to the Georgia State Capitol. According to news reports of the time, thousands were on hand to see the unveiling of the statue. The likeness stood there, fist defiantly raised, for 83-years. The statue was moved in November 2013 after a prolonged effort on the part of activists to have the statue taken down. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R), said the move was done for safety reasons while repairs were being made to the steps of the Capitol. Removal of the statue was done when state offices were closed as part of the state’s late observance of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday.

The odyssey of Watson’s statue does not seem to be quite over, though. The statue was moved across the street from the Capitol to Talmadge Plaza Park. The park’s prominent location in downtown Atlanta has left some residents and activists calling for the statue to be boxed or destroyed outright. Where Watson will end up is anybody’s guess.