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Thomas Watson must go

A statue honoring a racist Georgian has no place in front of the Capitol

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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."

In contrast to his thick record of hate, Watson's record of public service is actually quite thin. He served just one full term as a member of Georgia's House of Representatives and a little more than a year as U.S. senator before he died in 1922. After Watson was elected senator in 1920, the Nation wrote that "never before has so conspicuous, so violent, so flaming an apostle of every variety of race hatred" been elected to the Senate.

After starting my research, I told friends about my campaign and asked them to read his newspaper archives and send me quotes they considered offensive. I was shocked by their findings. While the campaign was being built from the inside, I decided to go talk with Brooks, my original inspiration for the project, to see if he would write legislation to get the Watson statue taken down. When I pitched him the idea, he laughed. "It will take many years," he said. "I was born down here in the trenches with these folks, I hear them talk, I know their whispers. ... You're from Chicago, you ain't from the Deep South. You're very naïve."

It would take a coalition across political and racial boundaries to make such a thing happen, Brooks said. So I began contacting other members of the legislature. I called my own congressional representatives. I called Jewish members of the Georgia General Assembly. I wrote a passionate letter to Gov. Nathan Deal and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle. But the only response I received was a form letter from Cagle thanking me for my concerns about the Second Amendment and promising that, as a "gun owner and avid sportsmen," he too supported Americans' right to carry. Not only were government officials and interest groups failing to respond to my campaign, I couldn't even get them to send me the right form letter denying my request.

Then, in late January, just as I was gearing up to launch a website and online petition, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Brooks was being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly misappropriating funds as president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials. The investigation seemed suspect to Brooks and his supporters, especially since the lawmaker had been publicly calling for the FBI to step up its investigation into the Moore's Ford Bridge lynchings for years, while also claiming that the government organization played a role in the lynching. He drew parallels between his case and the FBI's investigation into Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s. Nevertheless, the story helped to stall the campaign in the heat of the session, because Brooks was our only legislative ally. Around the same time, state Rep. Thomas Benton, R-Jefferson, introduced a bill that would protect the Watson statue, and others like it, forever. According to Benton, the bill would guarantee that any statue, monument, or marker removed from a prominent place must then be put in an equally prominent place.

"In this day of political correctness you can find people that are offended by anything," Benton said when I asked him why he was proposing the bill now. He said the only statue he could imagine being removed was a memorial to a "Communist or something of that nature that is totally opposed to what we stand for in this country." Perhaps Benton's most interesting argument was that Watson lived in a different time period, a time when Watson's views were held by many of the people of the state. Which made me wonder — is it fair to judge people by today's moral standards when they existed in a different era, a time when they might have been celebrated for the same things for which we now persecute them?

Call me naïve, but I believe the state Capitol is sacred ground. It should be reserved for the heroes who stood up for what turned out to be historically right, rather than those who capitalized on the worst aspects of humanity in the times in which they lived. Clearly, Watson's statue, which sports a plaque that never mentions the hatred on which he built his influence, is better suited for a museum, with a corrected plaque, than the front of the building where our democracy is carried out and where all Georgians are supposedly represented.

As the legislative session draws to a close, I have not harnessed the threshold of support that Brooks said he needed to write the legislation for the removal of the Watson statue. Fortunately, Benton's legislation did not make it out of the Rules Committee to be voted on by the full House, and it is essentially dead for this year. The FBI has yet to make any public statement about their investigation of Brooks, but leaders around the state, such as Georgia Conference of the NAACP President Edward DuBose and former Gov. Roy Barnes, have come to Brooks' defense. At this point, movement on the petition has been slow, with only 170 signatures after two weeks. We're aiming for 10,000. Sometimes days go by and nobody signs it. Nevertheless, the messages from dozens of people I have never met that have been left on the site fill me with hope that one day, that statue will be toppled.

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