Rising out of the chaos of post-Reconstruction Georgia, Watson championed the cause of the “little man” against powerful business and political interests. He became a leader of the Populist Party and an advocate for the rights of poor whites and blacks. As a legislator he fought against the railroad corporation lobby. As a congressman he was instrumental in passing rural-free delivery, the landmark law that required the U.S. Postal Service to deliver mail to folks far from town.
A lawyer, editor, publisher, writer, if he had not become convinced that among the forces keeping poor Southerners down were Jews and Catholics, and that black voters were being manipulated by the corporate and landed interests in the state, he might have become one of the positive forces in U.S. history. But convinced he became, and the second half of his career was as devoted to racism, anti-Semitism and religious bigotry as his early career had been devoted to the needs of the common man.
So it was hardly surprising that his statue, erected years ago by Georgians who shared his later opinions, would be an irritant and embarrassment to modern Georgians, black and white, who found those opinions repugnant. However, efforts to have the statue removed were never successful – until now.
The steps around the Georgia Capitol are being renovated. The statue is in the way and might be damaged by the construction. Gov. Nathan Deal has issued an executive order to have the statue moved to a state-owned park nearby. There it will stay because, according to a spokesman for the Georgia Building Authority, “to move it back would be a prohibitive cost that’s not in the budget.”
Not everyone is happy with the decision; there are those who claim this will lead to states removing monuments to people who did things that trouble us today.
Others claim that moving the statue is an effort to “whitewash history.”
Tom Watson, like so many others, did things we should remember because they were good but also because they were bad. His statue, located in a park, will remind us of both. However, what Watson and others like him did should not be celebrated or endorsed, which is what a statue on the Capitol grounds does.
Georgia had a dilemma. Georgia solved it. Good for Georgia.