During the six years that I've worked as Creative Loafing's photo editor, I've covered a lot of craziness — from the emergency room at Grady Memorial Hospital to a ride-along with the Red Dog police unit to homeless encampments under the Downtown Connector. But the most backward place I've ever had to shoot images, the place that makes me cringe every time I set foot on its grounds, is the Georgia State Capitol. It's not so much the madness beneath the Gold Dome that weirds me out (although it does). It's the statues surrounding it that haunt me.
One of the reasons I moved to Atlanta from Chicago in 2006 was because it was Martin Luther King Jr.'s hometown. He was always my greatest inspiration; I had intensely studied his nonviolent philosophy in college and tried to use it to guide my life. So when I found out that some of the statues at the Capitol pay homage to extreme racists, I was outraged. It went against everything I thought the New South stood for, and caused me to question the reasons I had moved here.
When my daughter was born in 2011, I started to think even more deeply about the world in which I wanted to raise her. Again, my mind flashed to the monuments at the Capitol, particularly the statue of Thomas E. Watson located prominently outside the Gold Dome's main entrance. The statue honors a man who was a white supremacist, an anti-Semite, and a religious bigot. I thought about the message she would receive when she read the plaque on his statue, "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause," and gazed up at the Gold Dome.
So last fall, I decided to start a campaign to try to get the statue taken down.
Little did I know that during the current legislative session, another bill would be introduced that would instead seek to preserve the statue, and others like it, in their places of prominence forever.
I first learned of the offensive statues around the Gold Dome when I covered a press conference my first year in Atlanta. Organized by state Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, the event took place under the statue of former Gov. Eugene Talmadge on the Capitol's southeast corner. I was the only member of the media there. Brooks was announcing the annual Moore's Ford Bridge lynching reenactment that he coordinates every year to highlight Walton County's unsolved 1946 lynching case. When I recently asked Brooks why he held the press conference under the statue, he explained that Talmadge was a racist governor who was as much to blame as anybody for the racial tension that led to the mob attacks in Walton and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in that era. "Talmadge was responsible for destroying many lives," Brooks said. "The blood of many African-Americans is on his hands."
After that press conference, I started to become more aware of the other statues on the grounds, particularly the solitary statue in the plaza in front of the main entrance. This statue serves as the backdrop to every protest and press conference held in front of the Gold Dome, dozens of which I attend each year. I started to wonder, "Who is this guy with his fist in the air?"
Watson was born in 1856 near Thomson, Ga., a small railroad town roughly 30 miles from Augusta. He was a lawyer and a prolific author who published biographies on Napoleon and Thomas Jefferson, among several other books. He started his political career as a progressive who advocated for the rights of blacks and whites. But by the early 1900s, he had transformed himself into a white supremacist newspaper publisher who championed bigotry and prejudice after Reconstruction.
As I researched Watson, I discovered a website that housed practically his entire archive, and I became increasingly shocked by the views he held. Articles and unsigned editorials in his newspaper the Jeffersonian called for the lynching of blacks, saying in one article, "We have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color." The publication argued relentlessly against black people being allowed to vote, encouraging readers to "just throw the ballots on the floor." His newspaper also was outspoken in its hatred of Catholics, calling the pope "an old dago," and alleged that priests imprisoned nuns in dungeon-like convents for "immoral purposes." Many of his articles were unsigned, but multiple historians say it's safe to assume he penned the pieces.
But perhaps Watson is best known for his hate-filled campaign against Jewish businessman Leo Frank. After Frank was convicted in 1913 of murdering Mary Phagan, a young girl who worked in his pencil factory in downtown Atlanta, Watson's writings contributed to the anti-Semitic frenzy that climaxed in Frank's lynching. "How much more of it can we stand? How much MORE will the rich Jews RUB IT IN ON US?" Watson asked his readers just a month before Frank was seized from a jail in Milledgeville and taken to Marietta, where he was lynched by a mob. The mob included prominent Georgians whom Watson would later call "bold true men." The day after Frank's killing, the New York Times published an article in which one of Frank's lawyers called for Watson's prosecution for first-degree murder for the lynching of Frank. In the article, the Times refused to reprint Watson's editorials about Frank, writing that they were "of such character as to preclude their reproduction in any respectable newspaper."