A controversial statue will soon move from the steps of the state Capitol to a nearby plaza. Many are cheering the statue’s relocation because it honors a man now widely considered a racist. But some say Georgians need to know about the state’s history – good and bad.
Tom Watson lived from 1856 to 1922. He was a lawmaker, a newspaper editor and an attorney.
But most modern Georgians know him in a different light, if they know him at all.
“He was an anti-Semite. He was anti-Catholic. He was anti-black,” said Shelley Rose with the Anti Defamation League’s Atlanta office.
She said the site of the statue is often a spot for protests and press conferences, which creates an awkward juxtaposition.
“We would be involved with a press conference about some issue connected with social justice or trying to get anti-hate legislation passed. And there we would be standing in front of Tom Watson, who was sort of the anti-thesis of the principles we were standing for,” she said.
Her group and others lobbied for moving the statue to a less-prominent spot. She says she's pleased the statue will no longer occupy just a prominent spot at the state Capitol.
Watson most famously instigated the 1915 lynching of Jewish businessman Leo Frank, who was convicted of killing a young girl.
Historian James Cobb said Georgia, like many Southern states, has a glut of monuments to people who are no longer considered heroes.
“You're bound to have these kinds of juxtapositions come up,” said Cobb, who’s with the University of Georgia. "There's just no way around it."
But it’s all part of the state’s history.
“There are concerns, I think, about how much you can really sanitize the historical landscape without losing some of the sense of accomplishment of African-Americans in terms of what they actually had to overcome,” Cobb said.
Cobb also said despite Watson's extreme prejudice later in life, he accomplished some good in his life, particularly by advocating on behalf of Georgia's farmers.
"He had a really deep-seated empathy for rural people, period," he said. "He becomes one of those confounding figures."
State officials say the statue is moving because of a construction project, not in response to lobbying efforts. A spokesman for Gov. Nathan Deal said he approved a request to move the statue from the Georgia Building Authority.
The move is expected to take place next month.