The statue of Tom Watson that graces the entrance to the Georgia state capitol will soon be removed from the grounds.
Watson was a newspaper magnate in the late 19th and early 20th century, and began his political career as a populist. In 1894, two years before he would be considered a serious candidate to accompany William Jennings Bryan on the Democratic presidential ticket, the masthead of his paper said that it “will oppose to the bitter end … Moneyed Aristocracy, National Banks, High Tariffs, Standing Armies and formidable Navies — all of which go together as a system of oppressing the people.”
He would later complain that Bryan was threatening to “turn the Democratic Party into the N****r Party.”
In the wake of his failed vice-presidential bid, and as his wealth increased, he began to speak out against populism, especially in its more socialist incarnations. He became well-known for his anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic diatribes — which he published in his papers — and openly supported the reconstitution of the Ku Klux Klan.
“Wherever the white man puts his foot, he rules,” Watson wrote at the time. “Don’t give the educated Negro the chance to register, and establish Negro Domination. MAINTAIN WHITE SUPREMACY!”
Particularly invidious was his behavior during the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent who was accused of strangling 13-year-old Mary Phagan. Despite an abundance of evidence that Frank could not have been the murderer, he was convicted and sentenced to hang. In 1915, his sentence was commuted to life by Governor John Slaton, who said he would “be a murderer if I allowed [Frank] to hang.”
Watson responded to the commutation by writing “[t]his country has nothing to fear from its rural communities. Lynch law is a good sign; it shows that a sense of justice lives among the people.” A group that included a former Georgia governor John Mackey Brown and styled itself “Knights of Mary Phagan” took Watson up on his offer and lynched Frank on August 16, 1915, a deed for which Watson proudly took credit.
When he was elected to the United States Senate in 1920, The Nation wrote that “[n]ever before has so conspicuous, so violent, so flaming an apostle of every variety of race hatred been invested with the power and dignity of the Senatorial Toga.”
The statue outside the Georgia capitol declares that Watson was “A CHAMPION OF RIGHT WHO NEVER FALTERED IN THE CAUSE.” It will be removed within the month.
[Image of Tom Watson statue via Georgia.gov]
Updated at 1:37 p.m. EST to correct spelling error.