Tom Watson’s Statue and the Tangled History of Southern Politics

At various times between 1979, when I got my first real job with Gov. George Busbee of Georgia, and 1995, when I finally fled from Zell Miller’s administration and took my last trip down the yellow brick road to Washington, I passed by and pondered the pigeon-defaced statue of Tom Watson on the State Capitol grounds and marveled at this depiction of a politician in full and eloquent rage. On reading that this controversial statue will finally disappear (it will be moved away during renovations of the grounds, and won’t be moved back), I wondered if the exorcism of Watson’s ghost would draw more attention to others haunting the Georgia Capitol grounds, and their own complicated legacies.

There’s a statue to Richard B. Russell, the last true leader of the Southern Resistance to civil rights in the U.S. Senate–but also a staunch early New Deal supporter who sponsored the career of the man who finally vanquished Dixie on civil rights, Lyndon Johnson.

There’s also Russell’s long-time Senate colleague Herman Talmadge, leader of a rural segregationist political machine who enjoyed an unlikely late-career renaissance as one of the “heroes” of the Watergate investigation.

And there’s Herman’s saturnine father, Eugene Talmadge, a reactionary demagogue with few redeeming qualities (he was perhaps most noted as a union-busting opponent of the New Deal) other than a dark sense of humor.

It’s hard to say exactly why Watson’s statue was so much more controversial than the others, aside from the fact that his bigotry transcended race and encompassed bitter campaigns against the alleged influence of Catholics and Jews (the latter most notoriously via his incitement of the lynching of Leo Frank, which in turn helped elevate him to the U.S. Senate). But then Watson made a point of offending a lot of people during his long political career. He was for years national leader of the left wing of the Populist movement, contemptuous of the narrow monetary policy focus of many of his midwestern rivals and committed to a full platform of agrarian anti-capitalist measures including nationalization of the railroads. Not long before the Frank lynching, Watson was calling himself “a red socialist through and through” and risking imprisonment for opposition to U.S. participation in World War I. In terms of the relative importance of the demons that beset his imagination, it was notable that he saved his most violent hostility for fellow racist (and longtime Georgia native) Woodrow Wilson, the “insufferable prig” he viewed as championing the interests of capitalist elites.

In any event, short of a general reconsideration of Georgia State Capitol statuary (probably a very good idea), just taking away ol’ Tom’s image strikes me as a mistake. He was the living link between the embittered ex-Confederates fighting what they regarded as an economic colonization by Yankee capitalists, and the 20th century southern progressives who finally concluded (as did Watson early in his career) that Jim Crow had to go if the South were ever to attain equality. And without question, the rage his image expressed was characteristic of a regional political culture that was nourished on a diet of red clay, Old Testament prophecy, whiskey and defeat.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.