But unlike more-familiar names like George Wallace and Strom Thurmond, Watson started out as pro-civil rights and ended up the other way around. And that against-the-grain transition has left him on the wrong side of history. The “PC Police” now have finally caught up with Watson.
Gov. Nathan Deal’s office confirmed on Monday that the state will exile the imposing statue of Watson from its time-honored place near the steps of the main entrance state Capitol to a less prominent location across the street. The move will take place as part of a renovation of the Capitol grounds.
WATSON HAILED from Thomson in southeast Georgia and served briefly after being elected to the state Legislature in 1882, U.S. House in 1892 and Senate in 1920, in addition to serving as the Populist Party’s VP nominee in 1896. But his main influence was as a poison-penned publisher and political kingmaker.
During his one term in the Legislature, he championed poor farmers and sharecroppers both black and white, and during his one term in the U.S. House he pushed for lower taxes on low-income citizens. He also publicly condemned lynching — an exceedingly rare position for a Southern politician in those days — and protected a black supporter from a lynch mob in the closing days of his unsuccessful re-election campaign, according to The New Georgia Encyclopedia (www.georgiaencyclopedia.org).
But reportedly turned off by Democratic manipulation of black voters and the advocacy of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, he changed his political stripes. Watson founded “Watson’s Jeffersonian Magazine” and a weekly newspaper and filled them with vehement diatribes against blacks, Catholics, Jews and against the pro-industrial “New South” agenda of Atlanta Constitution publisher Henry Grady. They found eager readers all over the South.
WATSON’S PUBLICATIONS played a key role in helping inflame public opinion against Atlanta factory owner Leo Frank after Frank became the prime suspect in the 1913 slaying of one of his employees, 13-year-old Mary Phagan of Marietta. Frank was found guilty and sentenced to hang, but his sentence was commuted to life in prison by Gov. John Slaton. At that point, some of Marietta’s most prominent men masterminded a vigilante operation that in 1915 abducted Frank from his prison cell near Milledgeville, drove him back to Marietta and lynched him on the outskirts of Marietta near the present-day site of the Big Chicken.
Watson’s journalistic career ended when the Post Office refused to deliver his publications during World War I because of his outspoken opposition to that conflict. But he was still popular enough in 1920 to unseat U.S. Sen. Hoke Smith (D-Ga.), who had been chosen by the General Assembly to succeed the late Alexander Stephens Clay of Marietta, whose statue now graces Glover Park in Marietta Square.
Watson died unexpectedly in office in 1922 at age 66 and Gov. Thomas Hardwick appointed Rebecca Latimer Felton, 87, as his temporary replacement. Felton, who served one day in office, was the first woman to serve in the Senate and remains the only woman to represent Georgia in that body.
WATSON was the great-grandfather of the late broadcasting magnate Tom Watson Brown of Marietta, who owned a chain of TV and radio stations in the Southeast and who renovated “Ivy Grove” on Cherokee Street as his home when he moved here in the 1980s. Brown (along with the late Dr. Phil Secrist of Marietta) was a founding member of the Georgia Civil War Commission, a minority owner of the Atlanta Falcons, and possessed a personal library of tens of thousands of volumes, including many rare first editions. He was an expert on the Frank case and went to his grave as an outspoken advocate of Frank’s responsibility for Phagan’s murder.
THE BASE OF THE BRONZE statue of Watson bears the inscription:
“HONOR’S PATH HE TROD ...
A CHAMPION OF RIGHT WHO
NEVER FALTERED IN THE CAUSE.”
But what was seen as “Honor’s Path” when the statue was placed there decades and decades ago is now seen by most as somewhat less than honorable in many respects, and Watson’s statue and long-outmoded views on race and religion have become somewhat of a sore thumb on the Capitol grounds.
There’s no word on what, if anything other than more pavement or lawn, might take the statue’s former place.
POLITICS: Georgia Attorney Gen. Sam Olens will host his re-election kickoff from 5-7 p.m. Wednesday at The Georgian Club in the Galleria. Host committee members are Jim Budzinski, Tammy Cohen, Jim Rhoden, Kelly Loeffler and Jeff Sprecher, banker Kessel Stelling, Cheryl and Dave Miller, Ed Voyles Automotive, Hall Booth Smith, Select Management Group, Gregory Calhoun Doyle Rogers, InfoMart and Troutman Sanders Strategies.
MORE POLITICS: Marsha and Charlie Crowder will have a reception for 11th District Congressional candidate Bob Barr from 6:30-8 p.m. Thursday. Hosts ($1,000 per couple) are Smyrna Mayor Max Bacon, state Sen. Chuck Clay, Cobb Tax Commissioner Gail Downing, lawyer Hylton Dupree, Marietta Councilman Philip Goldstein, Cecilia and Jay Wallace of Adventure Outdoors in Smyrna. Sponsors are Joanna and David Austin, Leah and Darrel Baxter, Oliver Halle, Adriane Larson, Gene Morris, Melinda and Bobby Tharpe and Victoria Turney.
UPCOMING: The 11th annual Cobb County Republican Women’s Club Veteran’s Celebration Brunch will feature a 9 a.m. social and 10 a.m. brunch Nov. 2 at the Marietta Hilton Conference Center on Powder Springs Street. Featured speaker will be former naval aviator and author Shane Osborn, with local country music DJ “Moby” as emcee. For more go to www.ccrwc.org or call (770) 265-4949.
COBB Sheriff Neil Warren and “The Georgia Gang” panelist Phil Kent of Atlanta will host a reception benefitting The American Immigration Control Foundation from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday at The Emerson Overlook Building, 326 Roswell St., in Marietta. Contribution levels start at $100. For information email firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE ARMY AVIATION HERITAGE FOUNDATION will be offering helicopter rides on a Huey UH-1 at the Aviation Wing of the Marietta Museum of History from 10 a.m.- 3 p.m. Saturday, weather permitting. Cost is $75 per person for an eight- to 10-minute flight. Minimum age is 5, with a maximum of three children per flight. A portion of the proceeds benefit the Marietta Museum of History. The Aviation Wing is at 550 Perrin Road, just off Atlanta Road south of South Cobb Drive.
THE MADISON FORUM will have Tim Furnish Ph.D., Middle Eastern Studies, at its 8 a.m. breakfast meeting Saturday at The Rib Ranch on Canton Road in Marietta. Furnish, a college professor who has provided special lectures to the Army, will speak on “Jihad, Crusades and Persecution of Christians: How the Left/Media Lie About History.”
HISTORIAN Michael K. Shaffer of the Civil War Center at KSU will speak on “The Civil War in Cobb County” at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Marietta Museum of History. The free event will be sponsored by the Cobb Landmarks & Historical Society. …
Also on Thursday, Cobb Landmarks will be sponsoring “Bourbon, Steaks & Stogies” at The Brickyard at Marietta Station. Cost is $50 a person for the 7 p.m. event, which is part of CL’s popular “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” fundraising series. Only 100 tickets will be available. For more, go to cobblandmarks.com.
WANT TO GET in the mood for Halloween? The original silent screen version of “The Phantom of the Opera” starring Lon Chaney will play at the Strand Theatre at 3 p.m. Sunday with live accompaniment by organists Ron Carter and Phillip Allen. Tickets are $9 for adults. Call the Strand at (770) 293-0080 or go to www.EarlSmithStrand.org.