Tom Watson’s image a valuable reminder of human nature, history

I’m going to miss ol’ Tom Watson.

To be more precise, I’ll miss the statue of the early 20th century Georgia populist that for years has welcomed visitors approaching the front steps of the Georgia Capitol. As the AJC reported this week, Watson’s statue will be removed during upcoming renovations and will not be returned afterward to its longtime place of honor. The official explanation is cost, but the more likely reason is that Watson had become an embarrassment.

That’s too bad, because embarrassment can be a useful thing.

While the statue had been placed there as an honor to Watson, in my own mind at least it had evolved into something else entirely. To anyone who knew Watson’s story, it served as an eloquent warning about the corrupting hunger for power, and as a reminder of the human susceptibility to the demagogue’s tricks. Those are valuable lessons for every person conducting business under the Gold Dome.

When I moved to Georgia almost a quarter century ago, the highly theatrical Watson statue had made me curious. Who was this man, standing with left hand raised high in an angry fist about to come thundering down? What was Georgia telling the world about itself by putting him in such a highly symbolic place?

“Honor’s path he trod,” an engraving on the statue base told me. “A champion of right who never faltered in the cause.”

With some research, I discovered that early in his career, Watson had championed what today would seem like an odd mix of Tea Party and MoveOn ideology, and had done so with extraordinary eloquence. The federal government, he complained, “was the most extravagant Government the world ever saw, and getting more so every year,” while “these Corporations are the Feudal Barons of this Century. Their Directors live in lordly Palaces and Castles, Their Yachts are on the sea; their Parlor Cars on the rails. They spread feasts that would feed a starving factory town.”

Over time, though, Watson found other approaches to win public approval and influence. It’s always important not to judge those of an earlier era by the standards of our own, but even by the standards of the American South a century ago, Watson’s demagoguery was vicious, racist and violent.

He was a strong supporter of lynching as a legitimate means of keeping the black and the Jew in his place, and played a critical role in inciting the infamous lynching of Leo Frank. “There is no difference, fundamentally, between a lynching and a more formal, legalized form of homicide,” Watson wrote at the time, arguing that after all, a court-sanctioned execution after a guilty verdict and a lynching are both acts of community will.

He objected to having to allow the Catholic Knights of Columbus to parade, angered as “a gang of lazy, stall-fed, indecently dressed men — calling themselves priests — go prancing through the streets behind a little piece of bread which they say is God.” A black person is “an inferior being: is not any more our brother than the apes are, and we don’t intend that he shall ever live on a footing of equality with us,” he wrote. “In the South, we have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.”

In that later incarnation as a race-baiting demagogue, Watson gained great political prominence and was elected to the U.S. Senate. So it’s no surprise that black and Jewish leaders in Georgia have welcomed the decision to move Watson’s statue to a much less conspicuous place.

Again, I understand that sentiment as well as the decision itself. However, it teaches us something when a statue that was initially placed to honor a man of great achievement becomes, over time, a caution against those who would use race and religion to divide us. There are still those among us who would use those same tactics to advance themselves and their careers, just as there are still those who would respond to it.

Basic human nature hasn’t changed, and neither has our history. We should never be quick to remove relics of our past just because they make us uncomfortable. The fact that they make us uncomfortable is often part of the reason that they should stay.

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