Gov. Nathan Deal signed an executive order earlier this month authorizing the relocation later this year of the 12-foot bronze statue of Thomas E. Watson to a spot across the street. In the order, Deal makes no mention of Watson’s past and says the move is needed because of an extensive renovation project on the west steps and entrance area of the Capitol.
Paul Melvin with the Georgia Building Authority said agency officials were not aware of calls for the statue to be removed and instead based the decision on costs. He said the agency is about to begin a $2 million project to renovate the steps leading up to the Capitol on the west side, and it will cost up to $60,000 to move the statue so work can completed.
“The cost was prohibitive to move it twice,” Melvin said.
The decision was praised by groups who say it was offensive to have such a statue in a place of honor at the Capitol.
“We are grateful to Governor Deal for acting to move the statue. In doing so, he sends a clear message that he will not tolerate the hatred and bigotry that defined so much of Watson’s career,” said Shelley Rose, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Southeast office.
Born in 1856, Watson was elected to the Georgia General Assembly and later served as a congressman and U.S. senator from Georgia. He also was nominated by the Populist Party to run as vice president in 1896.
Watson was initially considered a liberal but in later years, as the publisher of an influential weekly newspaper, he emerged as a “force for white supremacy and anti-Catholic rhetoric,” according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
It was during the case of Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who was convicted in the 1913 killing of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, that Watson fanned the flames of public outrage with accusations against Jews, according to an account in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
Frank’s death sentence was later commuted to life in prison, but he was taken from his cell by a mob and lynched in 1915.
In 1986, the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles pardoned Frank, in part, over the state’s failure to protect him.
Watson died in 1922, two years into his term in the U.S. Senate. Rebecca L. Felton was appointed to serve the remainder of his term, becoming the first woman in the U.S. Senate.