Moderated by David Ibata
As might be expected in a state with as freighted a history as ours, a plan to move the statue of Thomas E. Watson — lawmaker, populist, poor folks’ champion, white supremacist and religious demagogue — from the steps of the state Capitol has prompted wide-ranging reactions. An Anti-Defamation League official is glad to see the statue go. The CEO of the Atlanta History Center says we should not sanitize history, but learn from it.
By Shelley Rose
It’s about time.
The imposing — some would say forbidding — statue of Thomas E. Watson has stood at the front entrance of the Georgia State Capitol since its unveiling in December 1932 and has withstood numerous efforts to remove it over the decades. Now, at long last, Gov. Nathan Deal has ordered its relocation to a less visible park across the street from the Capitol grounds. The Anti-Defamation League applauds this move.
Watson was a powerful Georgia political leader and journalist who began his career as a populist, arguing for better living and working conditions for rural Georgians, black and white. But as the beginning of the 20th century neared, he evolved into a demagogic bully, rallying Georgians around his fiery denunciations of blacks, Jews and Catholics.
Watson railed against them repeatedly in the pages of his magazine, The Jeffersonian. He helped revitalize the Ku Klux Klan and is credited with organizing its first cross-burning. He wrote about the “superiority of the Aryan” and stood “squarely for white supremacy.”
His anti-Semitic attacks on Atlanta Jewish businessman Leo Frank — accused of the 1913 murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan — were so poisonous that many believe he inspired the hatred that led to Frank’s lynching. An article published in The New York Times the day after Frank was killed reported that Watson’s writings about Frank “preclude their reproduction in any respectable newspaper.”
It’s no wonder, then, that the Watson statue has sparked so many cries for its removal from the Capitol.
Some critics of the move acknowledge Watson’s controversial past but argue that it is problematic to try to erase our history — good or bad. They contend that the statue can serve today as a reminder that Georgia’s past does include a dark side represented by bigots like Watson. But the Capitol must represent fair and equal government for all. The statue’s current prominent display implicitly endorses Watson’s dark side, conveying an official message of exclusion and marginalization to many Georgians. Such a message is simply unacceptable in the 21st century.
We recognize that moving the statue from the Capitol grounds is a symbolic gesture and would not greatly change the practical status of race relations in Georgia today. However, symbols matter. Having the Watson statue occupy a place of particular honor, standing at the main entrance to the Capitol building where it cannot escape the notice of thousands of school children and others who visit the Capitol every day, sends the wrong message.
Surely we don’t want to hold him up as an example of a great leader in our state’s history. The statue needs to be moved to a place where Watson’s historical significance can be remembered, but his message of hate and bigotry can be distanced from our state government.
Ironically, it appears that the plaque on the Watson statue will survive its relocation. It reads, in part, “Honor’s the path he trod … a champion of right who never faltered in the cause.” Whatever he tried to accomplish for good early in his public life, by embracing bigotry and hatred, Watson chose an eventual path of dishonor.
Now is the time to show the people of Georgia that we are distancing ourselves from these beliefs. It has been over 90 years since Tom Watson’s death. It is time to remove his statue from our state Capitol grounds.
Shelley Rose is associate director of the Anti-Defamation League, Southeast Region.
By Sheffield Hale
Putting anyone on a pedestal is a tricky business. Who we commemorate says just as much about the culture and point of view of the majority in political and economic power at the time as it does about the object of veneration itself. As a monument ages, it develops a history separate from its subject, particularly when popular opinions and perspectives change.
The impulse to remove monuments as time passes and perspectives change is natural. On one hand, a once-celebrated individual can come to be regarded negatively in the light of current culture, opinion and attitudes. It seems reasonable, therefore, for those who are personally offended by that person (and that belief system) to object to the community support that they believe is implicit in leaving the monument in place.
Others may wish to distance themselves from that past and prefer that the nuisance simply be removed, since it presents an embarrassing reminder of some aspect of our collective history. After all, it is much harder to wave a bloody shirt after it has been dry cleaned.
As natural and well-intentioned as these impulses are, I believe they do not serve our community well. Although these controversies may serve as a cautionary tale for the erection of new monuments, once erected, these physical embodiments of cultural and political views should be retained for the lessons they can teach us over time about ourselves and how we have grown and changed as a people, a community, and a country.
Preserving such monuments is not the same as implicit support of an ideology, but instead, with broader interpretation, should be viewed as a type of historical waypoint that helps us understand our current situation in relationship to our past.
Inscriptions on monuments beg for context. Today, modern technology, such as QR Codes, can direct the observer to a broader historical and cultural context of the monument. This modern technology and its interpretive authority can be updated, providing evolving perspectives over time.
The great story of this nation is not that we have always been enlightened by current standards, but that we have evolved in our treatment and acceptance of one another. An honest examination of our history requires us to confront a painful, ambiguous past – an examination that for many is difficult, challenging and distressing. That examination can also be provocative, stimulating and inspiring.
We cannot change our history. But, we can learn from it. Controversial history should not be sanitized. Instead, this is an opportunity to address the underlying issues that often divide us. Rather than censoring the past, let us bridge the divide and use the changing interpretation of history to open ourselves to perspectives that can allow all of us to learn from our past and create a better Atlanta. The past has much to teach us about who we are, and where we are — if we let it.
Sheffield Hale is president and CEO of the Atlanta History Center.