SOUTHERN HISTORY TODAY-Moving Tom Watson: A battle over bronze and over memory
Not even past
A battle over bronze and over memory
At first, Watson was a progressive agrarian populist, winning the support of rural blacks and whites alike. He came to abandon those ideals, writing vicious diatribes in his magazine against blacks (“an inferior being…not any more our brother than the apes are”), Jews (“thick-lipped rakes [who] glut their eyes upon handsome Gentile women”) and Catholics (he referred to the Pope as “a fat old Dago”). He whipped up sentiment against Leo Frank, a Jewish factory worker lynched in 1913 after having been convicted, on flimsy evidence, of killing a 13-year-old Christian girl.
On November 29th, the day after Thanksgiving, when Georgia’s government offices were closed and traffic was light, workers wrapped Watson’s statue in plastic and moved it, plinth and all, from the capitol grounds to a park across the road. There it will stay. Nathan Deal, the governor, signed an order authorising the statue’s removal in October; he said it was to allow the renovation of the capitol’s dilapidated front steps, and that moving the statue back would be much too expensive.
Not everyone believes him. Michael Hill, who heads the League of the South, a secessionist organisation, condemned Mr Deal for “caving in to political correctness”. Tommy Benton, also a state representative, introduced a bill that strongly hinders government officials from moving or hiding any historical monument or statue. He worries that “if you start taking down every monument because you find one or two things you don’t particularly like about that person, there won’t be any monuments left.” But Tyrone Brooks, the president of the Georgia Association of Black Elected Officials and a 17-term member of the Georgia House of Representatives, praised Mr Deal for deciding to “move some of these old racist artefacts” from “the people’s house”.
Similar battles over symbols have occurred across the South. They can be costly: many believe that Georgia’s last Democratic governor, Roy Barnes, lost his bid for re-election in 2002 largely because he championed the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state flag.
Bill Haslam, Tennessee’s governor, signed into law a measure similar to the one Mr Benton proposed earlier this year, except that it also forbids the renaming of parks named after any “historical military figure”. The bill was introduced as the city of Memphis, which has a black majority, was debating renaming three city parks: Confederate Park; Jefferson Davis Park, named after the president of the Confederacy; and Nathan Bedford Forrest Park, named after a Confederate general and brilliant military strategist who made his fortune in slaves. Forrest was accused of massacring black Union troops after they had surrendered, and later was an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Memphis got its changes in under the wire; today the parks are called Memphis Park, Mississippi River Park and Health Sciences Park.
In Selma, Alabama a bust of Forrest was stolen in 2012; it has never been recovered. Schools named after Forrest used to dot the South; today few remain, and one (in Jacksonville, Florida) is in the process of changing its name. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, Brady Street commemorates Wyatt Tate Brady, one of Tulsa’s founders and a Klansman; earlier this year Tulsa’s city council voted to keep the street’s name but changed its namesake to Mathew Brady, a renowned civil-war photographer.
Some, such as Mr Hill, see in these changes “a campaign against southerners, a campaign against whites…[and] an attempt to culturally cleanse the South of any old, white, conservative, Confederate influence.” Such concern seems twinned with deeper anxiety over changes coming to the region, which has long been rural and relatively homogeneous. Of the ten American states whose Hispanic population grew fastest between 2000 and 2011, eight are in the south—nine if you include Maryland. Among the top ten states with the fastest-growing foreign-born population between 2000 and 2011, six are southern, with Tennessee leading the country. Mr Hill’s group has staged street demonstrations against what they call “southern demographic displacement” (and others call “immigration”) around the region.
To others these changes are long overdue. Lee Harris, a Memphis city councilman who supported changing the parks’ names, distinguishes recognising Confederate history from celebrating it. He notes that the parks were named decades after the American civil war—Jefferson Davis Park did not get its statue of the former president until 1964.
Similarly, Georgia’s flag incorporated the Confederate battle flag in 1956—the same decade in which Jacksonville named a high school after Forrest and Montgomery, Alabama added the phrase “Cradle of the Confederacy” to its city seal. That also happened to be the decade in which the Supreme Court ordered schools to be desegregated, Rosa Parks refused to stand in the bus, and Jim Crow laws (the civil war’s long tail) came under sustained and ultimately fatal attack—suggesting that these symbols were less about honouring the Confederate dead than about insulting the advancing forces of racial equality.
Those symbols remained peaceably in place as long as black southerners lacked political power. Once removed, however brutal the fight, life seems to proceed as before. Despite the promises of Sonny Perdue, Mr Barnes’s successor as governor, Georgia's state flag remains free of the popular Confederate symbol. And notwithstanding a lawsuit from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Mr Harris says most Memphians simply use the parks as they did before, indifferent to the change of name. He adds that such symbols “celebrate a part of our history that just a small minority think is honourable. That small minority is not going to be able to win at the end of the day.”
Correction: In the original version of this article we confused the Confederate battle flag with the Confederacy's first flag, often called the Stars and Bars. Sorry about that. This was corrected on December 6th 2013.