Thomas Watson of Georgia began his political career in the late nineteenth century as a Populist champion of small farmers and opponent of powerful railroad companies. As a congressman, he was instrumental in implementing Rural Free Delivery by the postal service.
By the early twentieth century, however, Watson was lending his voice to prejudice rather than reform with his virulent denunciations of Catholics, blacks, and Jews. His condemnations of northern and Jewish influence in the wake of Leo Frank’s 1913 trial for the murder of Mary Phagan contributed to the anti-Semitic feeling against Frank that resulted in his August 1915 lynching.
There’s a statue of Watson on the grounds of the Georgia State Capitol, but as of this month it’s slated to be moved across the street to make way for a renovation project. The statue’s removal apparently has nothing to do with Watson’s bigotry and everything to do with the prohibitive cost of moving it back once the renovations are done, but it’s prompted an interesting discussion about historical memory and one political figure’s very mixed and quite troubling legacy.