ATLANTA – A controversial statue of a one-time Georgia politician, who has been widely recognized as a racist, has been removed from the main entrance of Georgia State Capitol.
The 12-foot bronze monument of Thomas E. Watson, a U.S. Senator in the 1920s, has welcomed visitors at the state government building for 81 years.
But the day after Thanksgiving it was quietly moved to Plaza Park, a fenced-off, state-owned park across the street. Georgia governor Nathan Deal signed an executive order in October authorizing the removal.
“The campaign was always about having it removed from the front of State Capitol. Now, it’s not the first thing school kids see when they go into the building.”
For those who have done their research, Watson was a self-described white supremacist who vilified African-Americans, Jews and even Catholics.
“Some of the most vicious quotes I have ever read were written by Watson,” says Davis.
Watson promoted his racial and religious bigotry through influential publications he owned.
He defended the lynching of blacks and wrote that the African-American “is not any more our brother than the apes.” He called Catholics “traitors” and also railed against “rich Jews” and “degenerate Jews.
“He blatantly advocated white supremacy, believed black people were inferior and they shouldn’t have the right to vote,” says Davis. “The way he characterized African-Americans is the most demeaning stuff I have ever read.”
The official response from the governor’s office is the statue was permanently moved as part of extensive renovation of the west step and entrance to the Capitol.
Still, those committed to removal of the Watson statue because of his racist reputation believe the increasing momentum of their campaign pressurized the incumbent Governor to take action ahead of the 2014 election.
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, who worked closely with Davis to kick-start this most recent campaign, had agreed to write legislation in the upcoming legislative session to have the statue removed.
Brooks, who is president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials, gives credit to Georgia’s Governor but says the explanation is political maneuvering.
“They want to give themselves cover from groups who want to maintain the status,” he says. “They don’t want to acknowledge the work of progressive groups who have been advocating for the removal of the statue of years.”
In fact, prior to Watson’s statue being taken down right-wing protestors demonstrated against the move.
In an online posting these Conservative groups called the removal “an abject capitulation to political correctness and a heinous assault on our Southern heritage. It sets a dangerous precedent and will only embolden the American Taliban to attack other historical monuments in Georgia.”
“It’s a great victory for the people of the state that they will no longer have a racist bigot greeting them at the front door at the State Capitol,” says Brooks.
“We know his history, horrible racist reputation, anti-Semitism, vicious and vulgar racism. It’s a symbolic but meaningful victory.”
Though, Davis says he “wishes” the Watson plaque could be changed so visitors would gain a better understanding of his racist views.
Brooks says activists have been lobbying for years for the removal of the Watson statue but this latest campaign “diversified and became bigger and broader,” encompassing multicultural groups and religious leaders from interfaith groups.”
He now hopes this is the first step towards the removal of other “offensive statues,” like those of Sen. Richard Russell, Gov. Eugene Talmadge, and Confederate General John B. Gordon from the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol.
Follow Kunbi Tinuoye on Twitter at @Kunbiti