Friday, October 25, 2013

A Most Inconvenient Man

Oh, Tom Watson. Whatever shall we do with you?

Stuff you in a closet, apparently. That seems to be the approach being taken by the state of Georgia when it comes to a statue of the fiery turn-of-the-century politician and journalist which stands on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol in Atlanta. Actually, according to a spoikesman for Gov. Nathan Deal, the 12-foot statue will be moved to a nearby state-owned park.

To people who know who he was (hint: the Tom Watson we're talking about was not a professional golfer). Tom Watson's name is synonymous with "racist." He's best known as the firebrand who whipped up anti-Semitic passions during the Leo Frank case and helped incite Frank's infamous lynching. But he hated Catholics, too, and he was one of the most virulent bigots who ever wrote about African Americans in the South.

I remember coming across the Tom Watson statue years ago when I was a reporter in Atlanta and had to go down to the Capitol for something. At the time I wondered about the inscription, "a champion of right who never faltered in the cause." I had no idea of who he was, except for a vague sense that he'd been a bad guy; none of my school books had ever mentioned him. Years later, I picked up a used copy of C. Vann Woodward's classic biography, Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, and I learned about the first half of Watson's career, before he surrendered to the Dark Side.

That Tom Watson was a gifted orator and a lacerating critic of the railroad cabals who owned Georgia's government in the late 19th century. He was decades ahead of his time in advocating public ownership of the railroads and government delivery of mail to rural areas. He also opposed the convict lease system, in which prisoners (black, naturally) who had often been arrested on flimsy charges to begin with were "leased" out serve their sentences by working for state agencies or private companies owned by rich people who had pals in state government. This was the practice Wall Street Journal reporter Douglas Blackmon later described so vividly in his book, Slavery By Another Name. It lasted up through World War II, and I remember finding vestiges of it in eastern Georgia--near Tom Watson's hometown of Thomson--when I was reporting there in the mid 1980s.

More than anything, though, Tom Watson was the guy who saw through the "let's you and him fight" tactics that have been used by economics elites in the South for the last 150 years to distract poor whites and poor blacks from realizing how much they are getting screwed. (Southern Republicans used a similar distraction technique to whip up anti-Obamacare sentiment: Forget about those record salaries of insurance and hospital CEOs or those record profits in the pharmaceutical  industry--the government's trying to pick your pocket!  "You are kept apart," Watson told integrated audiences of black and white farmers back when he was running for Congress in the 1880s, "that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings"--by banks which denied them credit for to buy seed, then evicted them from their homes when their crops failed. This bald statement of fact earned him the animus of Atlanta Constitution editor Henry Grady, that famous pro-business proponent of "The New South", who made sure that Watson's immensely popular speeches ran next to the truss ads on the back page, if they made the paper at all. As a Populist candidate for Congress in 1892, Watson was defeated by the pro-business Georgia Democratic Party machine in an election that his biographer, Woodward, called nothing less than "a farce"--full of voter intimidation, ballot box stuffing, bribery and the miraculous voter participation of small children and people who had been dead for years. The experience drove him out of politics. It made him mean and bitter. It made him into the twisted rabble-rouser he became.

Now the state of Georgia is going to "relocate" his statue somewhere as part of some renovation project. I am guessing it will wind up in a place where the only regular visitors will be winos and homeless people. In death, as in life, Tom Watson is an inconvenient reminder of a racist past a lot of Southern white people would like to bury, as well as economic realities a lot of rich people would rather the rest of us not think about. Southerners love their history, as long as it's not too inconvenient.

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