By Tom Baxter
“Sometimes history is not pretty. But at the same time, it is the history. Good or bad,” Rep. Tommy Benton (R-Jefferson) said last week after Gov. Nathan Deal ordered Tom Watson’s statue removed from the west side of the State Capitol.
Benton is right about history, and it’s very fair-minded for a conservative Republican to protest the removal of the statue of a Georgian who advocated the nationalization of the railroads and embraced the Bolsheviks.
When he was pressed on the matter, Deal said the removal of Watson’s statue from the Capitol grounds was a “safety issue,” which would have brought a hearty laugh from Watson if he were still around. The one thing his contemporaries seem to have agreed on was that Tom Watson was a dangerous man.
He was said to have a shock of dark red hair, but in black-and-white photos he bears more than a passing resemblance to Zell Miller. The resemblance isn’t only cosmetic. Both had highly successful careers driven by a brooding resentment of those they perceived to be putting themselves above them. Both took pride in being scholars and authors, and both showed, over the course of their careers, an astonishing elasticity on the issues, though Watson, who is best remembered today for whipping up the hysteria that led to the lynching of Leo Frank, went to far greater extremes.
Walter White, who as a child in Atlanta witnessed the 1906 streetcar riots and went on to guide the NAACP through its formative decades, called Watson “the strangest mixture of contradictions which rotten-borough politics of the South had ever produced.”
As a Populist leader in the 1890s, Watson not only appealed to black voters but called out an armed group of supporters to protect a black Populist leader threatened with lynching. Upon returning to the Democratic Party in the following decade he was a leader in the successful drive to disenfranchise black voters. Before editorializing against Frank as a “libertine Jew,” he represented Jewish clients in criminal cases, and afterwards he opposed seating Henry Ford, another noted Anti-Semite, in the U.S. Senate.
Some of these contradictions were impelled by cold political calculation. Indeed, he became the model for generations of Southern politicians who sprang from populist roots and descended into demagoguery.
Watson also was shaped by a post-Civil War childhood in which his once-prosperous family moved from a plantation, to a smaller farm, to a boarding house and saloon in Augusta. That traumatic fall in station shaped Watson’s Jeffersonian love for the country folk, and deep distrust for what smacked of the city, whether it be Patrick Walsh, the Catholic political boss in Augusta, or Leo Frank, the Jewish factory superintendent accused of murdering young Mary Phagan.
He denounced Catholics far more bitterly and regularly than Jews, but he despised the urban, industrialized environment from which they came most of all. He abhorred Henry Grady and his ideas about an industrialized New South.
At the same time, his upbringing gave him a visceral feeling for the politics of those who felt power slipping through their fingers — for their ideals as well as their prejudices. He renounced populism and distanced himself from the Socialists, but when he was accused of being a Bolshevik for his opposition to the U.S. entering World War I, he turned his rhetorical fire on his accusers.
“You are afraid of your own proletariat. That is what you are afraid of,” he said in a Senate speech. “You are afraid of the dissatisfied workman, thrown out of employment by these soulless, these heartless, these insatiable trusts and combinations of capital; you are afraid of the millions of men and women and children who do not have enough to eat in this land of bounteous harvests, not enough to wear in the very cotton fields where their hands bring forth the staple that clothes the world.”
He spoke those words not in his young, populist days, but near the end of his life, before a cerebral hemorrhage cut short the U.S. Senate term he won, as an outspoken critic of Woodrow Wilson and his foreign policies, in his final comeback campaign.
So what is there to do now about this batch of contradictions that has been set in stone? Benton is right that we shouldn’t bury our history, though we can, and do, rearrange it from time to time. So here’s one idea. I think Watson’s old nemesis, Henry Grady, has been lonesome up there on Marietta Street since the AJC relocated to the suburbs. Move Tom Watson up there, just down the street from where Woodrow Wilson had his law office. And let them cuss at each other, as long as their statues stand.