When they remove Tom Watson’s statue from Georgia’s Capitol grounds, it won’t be quite as spectacular as when Iraqis and American soldiers pulled down the statue of dictator Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in the spring of 2002.
The symbolism, however, is comparable. The Iraqis were putting a violent past to rest, they thought, and some of the skeletons in Georgia’s shameful closet will walk across the street with Watson.
It is no wonder there is some controversy over removing Watson’s statue from the state Capitol grounds, supposedly because of a remodeling job.
He was a controversial figure in his time, at different times a Populist, a Democrat, a journalist and lawyer, seemingly like many politicians changing with the political whims. Watson was charismatic, but had a mean streak with which he would attack his opponents, especially through his newspaper, but also would turn on his friends and allies seemingly at the drop of a ballot.
After developing a lucrative law practice, Watson entered politics in the late 1880s and became a U.S. congressman in 1890. He went against the grain of the Democratic Party by encouraging blacks and whites to work together, resulting in back-to-back election defeats. Then he turned to writing books and publishing his newspaper, which he used to punish his political opponents.
The Populist Party, which he helped birth, nominated him for vice president in 1896 and president in 1904, but both candidacies failed.
Watson returned to the Democratic Party, and his venomous writings and speeches around the state turned against black people and Jews. He and Thomas Hardwick, a congressman, supported Hoke Smith for governor in 1905 on a platform that would build more barriers for black voters.
Fifteen years later, he opposed Smith and won a U.S. Senate seat. Hardwick became governor in the same election.
During these most turbulent times in Georgia politics, the Atlanta Georgian newspaper devoted more than a full page to Watson’s shenanigans. Having warred with Smith through each other’s newspapers, Watson agreed to come to Atlanta for a forum that drew 5,000 people.
Perhaps reflecting his mercurial political career, Watson was first greeted by thunderous applause at the forum and cheered when he made disparaging remarks against Jews and blacks.
He also hammered away at his former allies, Hardwick and Smith. Smith was popular at the time, so the crowd at the forum turned on Watson, booing and hissing him until he left the auditorium.
Watson died in office in 1922. Hardwick appointed Rebecca Latimer Felton, 87, to replace him in the U.S. Senate, making her the first female senator, but she served only 24 hours. Hardwick wanted the seat himself and ran in the next election, but lost to Walter F. George.
Because of Watson’s anti-semitic and anti-black harangues and support of the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings, most Georgians accepted the removal of his statue from Capitol grounds.
One of those opposed, however, is Rep. Tommy Benton of Jackson County. Benton was quoted as saying the statue and Watson are part of Georgia’s history, however embarrassing that might be. His argument is that in this era of political correctness, once you start removing statues, others might fall like dominoes around the state.
Footnote: Watson’s library has a home in Gainesville. Judge Uly Thompson bought Watson’s book collection in 1922. It became the property of the Brenau University library in 1941, a gift in memory of Felix Jackson, father of Walton Jackson, a Gainesville businessman and Brenau trustee at the time.
Gainesville’s Junior Chamber of Commerce has been an active civic organization for many years. Many of its leaders have gone on to become instrumental in the area’s business, professional and civic progress.
When Nathan Deal was a member a half century ago, his speaking ability and leadership prowess caused some to predict that he would one day become Georgia’s governor. And he did.
The Jaycees, as they have been called in modern times, organized in Gainesville March 12, 1928. J.E. Redwine Jr. was its first president; Lenton Carter was vice president.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays.