You're likely unfamiliar with Thomas E. Watson's name, but if you've visited the State Capitol any time in the past 80 years, you've seen his statue. Fist clenched in the air, Watson stands in life-size bronze atop a high stone pedestal commanding the stairs that lead up to the building's main public entrance.
So, who was this man, that he should deserve such prominent placement at the Georgia statehouse? According to the inscription — literally carved in stone — Watson was a lawyer, author, statesman and, notably, "A champion of right who never faltered in the cause."
Sadly, that's not quite accurate. Considered something of a reformer as an influential state legislator and congressman in the late 1800s, Watson later became a full-fledged bigot.
As a newspaper publisher, he advocated disenfranchisement of black voters, wrote anti-Catholic editorials and, during the Leo Frank trial, fanned the flames of public hysteria that culminated in Frank's lynching. In 1908, he ran for president on a white supremacy platform.
But Watson isn't the only dubious dignitary sullying the grounds of the Gold Dome. On the pedestal for Eugene Talmadge's statue, the three-term governor is described as, "A safe but progressive administrator of public trust." If, by "progressive," you mean crooked, power-mad and prone to demagoguery, that could make sense.
Long acknowledged as one of the most racist politicians Georgia ever produced, Talmadge has in recent years been linked to the notorious 1946 murder of two black couples at Moore's Ford bridge in Walton County, America's last mass lynching. At the time of his sudden death later that same year, the FBI was investigating evidence that Talmadge — looking for an edge in a tough election — had secretly offered immunity to any locals bent on killing a black sharecropper accused of stabbing a white farmer.
Granted, it's easy and a bit sanctimonious to judge previous generations by today's more enlightened social standards ... but come on. It's a no-brainer that, at the very least, our state should not continue to honor such 20th century agents of intolerance as Watson, Talmadge, former Gov. Lester Maddox and Larry McDonald, a John Birch Society president-turned-Georgia congressman whose name adorns I-75 north of Atlanta.
We've gotten the Confederate battle emblem off our state flag. Let's clean up the rest of our act.
The 6th annual re-enactment of the Moore's Ford lynchings will take place at noon Saturday, July 24, at the 1st African Baptist Church, 130 Tyler St., Monroe.
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