Georgia civil rights leaders have always found it uncomfortable leading rallies just beyond the outstretched arm of Tom Watson, a one-time populist turned fire-breathing white supremacist who vilified blacks, Catholics and Jews.
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AJC staff photographer Curtis Compton contributed reporting to this article.
Thomas Edward Watson, 1856-1922, was a trial lawyer, writer and publisher in Georgia. He started out as a populist who publicly opposed lynching and supported black Americans’ right to vote. He served briefly in the state Legislature and Congress but was more influential as a kingmaker in Georgia whose endorsement was sought by anyone hoping to win the governorship. By the time he ran for president on the Populist ticket in 1908, however, Watson had transformed into a harshly racist and anti-Catholic figure who filled his newspapers with hatred. His anti-Semitic attacks on Leo Frank and on the influence of Jews and northern interests in Georgia stoked sentiment against Frank and helped lead to his lynching in 1915. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Georgia in 1920 but died not long after taking office.
Tom Watson, whose statue is to be moved off the main Capitol grounds next month, is not the only racist figure whose likeness has been enshrined at the Capitol. Among Watson’s companions on the pedastals:
Maj. Gen. John B. Gordon
Gordon is widely believed to have been the grand dragon of Georgia’s Ku Klux Klan organization in the 1870s. He rose from obscurity as a coal mine operator with no military experience to take over half of Robert E. Lee’s army by the end of the Civil War. A staunch opponent of Reconstruction, he later was elected to the U.S. Senate, then governor and then senator again. Among other things, Gordon helped engineer the removal of federal troops from the South.
U.S. Sen. Richard B. Russell
Russell is said to have been more a states rights advocate than a racist. For decades, however, he orchestrated Senate filibusters against civil rights legislation. He once wrote a constituent: “I believe that the Negro is entitled to equal and exact justice before the law and that he is entitled to every right that I enjoy. There is nothing in our Constitution … however, that says we must enjoy these rights together at the same time and in the same place.”
Gov. Eugene Talmadge
Talmadge was elected to an unprecedented four terms as governor beginning in 1932. He won his last term in 1946 but died before he could take office. A federal court had disallowed the Democrats’ whites-only primary in 1946, and Talmadge made it one of the key issues in his campaign. “They desire Negroes to participate in our white primary in order to destroy the traditions and heritages of our Southland,” he was quoted as saying at the time.
U.S. Sen. Herman Talmadge
Son of Gene, “Hummon” was a governor and longtime U.S. senator from Georgia. He declared in 1956 that “God advocates segregation.” Two years earlier, Talmadge was among the loudest critics of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown vs. Board of Education and vowed that he would never permit the integration of schools. In 1955, Talmadge even wrote a 79-page book called “You and Segregation” making his twisted case for separating the races.
Sources: AJC files, New Georgia Encyclopedia, New York Times