The statue outside the Georgia Capitol that honors former U.S. senator, author, and self-described white supremacist Thomas Watson is being relocated from its prominent position as part of a construction project, state officials say. And it won't be coming back.
Earlier this month, Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order that allows crews to relocate the 12-foot-tall statue from its current location in front of the Capitol to Plaza Park, a fenced-off, state-owned park across the street.
The executive order says that the move is the result of the statue being "in the middle of the construction area" where "important renovations must take place." Georgia Building Authority Spokesman Paul Melvin says the statue will remain in Park Plaza once the project is completed because it's too expensive to transport the statue a second time.
During the last legislative session, I wrote an editorial calling for the removal of the Watson statue, which includes a plaque calling him a "champion of right who never faltered in the cause," from the front of the Capitol.
The Thomson, Ga., native was an attorney and considered a prolific author. But according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, his "public life has been considered one of the most perplexing and controversial of all Georgia politicians."
Watson's newspaper published editorials and articles, which the historians I contacted say were written by him, arguing that the lynching of African-Americans should be legal and that black people should not have the right to vote. The newspapers were also known for anti-Catholic writings which included calling the pope "an old dago" and alleging that priests imprisoned nuns in dungeon-like convents for "immoral purposes."
The newspaper also launched a hate-filled campaign against Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman who was convicted in 1913 of murdering Mary Phagan, a young girl who worked in Frank's Downtown Atlanta factory. Watson's writings were said to have contributed to an anti-Semitic frenzy that climaxed in Frank's lynching by a mob made up of prominent Georgians. He later called them "bold true men."
I started a campaign, "Thomas Watson Must Go," which included members of Georgia's Jewish and African-American community and started a petition drive which has collected close to 1,000 signatures supporting the removal of the statue. Every time the petition is signed a letter is sent to Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker David Ralston detailing Watson's history and calling for the statues removal from the front of the Capitol.
Melvin said the decision to permanently relocate the statue had nothing to do with Thomas Watson's past. Rather it was too expensive to remove the statue during the renovations and then relocate it after the renovation project. He said the project would start before the start of the upcoming legislative session. The statue's new location in Plaza Park has not been determined.
Senior Rabbi Steve Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth in Marietta, who for several decades has tried to prove Frank was innocent, called the statue's relocation "unbelievable." He thanked Deal, saying it is "an extremely progressive move on behalf our governor to recognize the inappropriateness of having a statue of Tom Watson directly in front of the Capitol. Tom Watson was a racist and a vicious anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic politician and does not deserve a central place in the life of Georgia's history. I commend the governor on his vision of what is truly a greater Georgia and a more welcoming place to people of all backgrounds."
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, an early supporter of the Thomas Watson Must Go campaign, applauded the relocation as well.
"And I hope it is permanent because Thomas Watson does not belong in front of our state Capitol," Brooks said. "He really does not belong anywhere on state property. But I certainly applaud the move from the front door of the main entrance of Georgia's Capitol."
Efforts to reach state Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, who last year sponsored legislation prohibiting the removal of statues and monuments from prominent places to non-prominent places, were unsuccessful.
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