Letter to the editor,
Georgia’s (Continuing) History of Racism and Bigotry
Confederate monuments are on the move once again. In June, a DeKalb County superior court judge ruled an obelisk erected in front of the old Decatur courthouse by the Daughters of the Confederacy had to come down. Then just this week, the Henry County Commission decided to remove the statue of Col. Charles T. Zachry from McDonough Square.
One can only hope this means that other monuments commemorating Georgia’s racist past will soon meet a similar fate. None is more deserving of this than the one honoring Thomas E. (Tom) Watson, located across the street from the state Capitol building in Plaza Park.
Watson’s defenders will tell you he was a gifted trial lawyer, a member of Georgia’s delegations to both the U. S. Senate and House of Representatives, a proponent of tax-funded public education, instrumental in passing legislation to provide for the rural delivery of mail, and a vocal critic of Georgia’s propensity for lynching blacks. What they might gloss over is that there was another side to the man.
In 1904 Watson came out strongly against black voting rights even though he had once supported the franchise. Then two years later, during Hoke Smith’s first campaign for governor, Watson stoked the flames of race hatred so high that for three days Atlanta was the scene of one of this country’s deadliest riots. From September 22-24, dozens of blacks were slain in broad daylight and countless others grievously wounded. Once Hoke Smith assumed office, he carried through on a promise made in return for Watson’s valuable political backing: he saw to it that the state adopted a constitutional amendment essentially disenfranchising Georgia’s Black voters.
But Tom Watson wasn’t finished. As the American Populist Party’s nominee for president in 1904 and again in 1908, he ran as an openly avowed white supremacist and often used two of his publications, Tom Watson’s Magazine and his popular weekly newspaper, The Jeffersonian, to malign blacks and Catholics. Then in 1913, he went after Jews with a vehemence that left little doubt about his virulent anti-Semitism.
After Leo Frank’s conviction for the murder of Mary Phagan in July of that year, newspaper editors in every part of the country, including Georgia, denounced Frank’s conviction as a travesty of justice. The threat of mob violence outside the courthouse on Marietta Street had been palpable. No jury, they argued, would have voted to convict based on the state’s highly circumstantial evidence unless members of that jury feared for their lives. But Tom Watson would have none of that.
During Frank’s unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States (Frank v. Mangum), Watson published a series of vile, anti-Semitic screeds about the case and what he viewed as undue influence exerted on Frank’s behalf by America’s Jewish community. Then after Gov. John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life in prison, Watson could no longer contain himself. His thirst for vengeance knew no bounds.
On Aug. 17, 1915, two months after Slaton’s commutation and just five days after Watson wrote in The Jeffersonian, “THE NEXT JEW WHO DOES WHAT FRANK DID IS GOING TO GET EXACTLY THE SAME THING THAT WE GIVE TO NEGRO RAPISTS!” a group of politically well-connected vigilantes forcibly removed Leo Frank from the Milledgeville State Prison farm and transported him to Marietta, where he was lynched.
Some readers may recall that Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order in 2013 moving the [Watson] statue to its present location so that repairs could be made to the state Capitol’s west steps. That was little more than an act of politically safe sleight-of-hand. Deal sought to appease vocal critics and at the same time assure his Republican base there would always be a place for Watson in the state Capitol complex.
Seven years later the continued presence of Watson’s statue in downtown Atlanta, no matter how well-concealed, serves as a painful reminder for many Georgians that racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry are still being honored as part of Georgia’s heritage. Now’s the time to take it down.