The Georgia state capitol with John Brown Gordon in the foreground
I have often passed the capitol building in downtown Atlanta and noticed that it had a few statues on its grounds. Being a native Southerner, I suspected that the men represented were probably prominent Confederate soldiers and segregationists of past eras. Well, there is some truth to that. But there is so much more to the story. There are conservatives and progressives represented. There is one memorial to a man who was both. One monument depicts the progression of a class of people from the depths of oppression to a higher level of social acceptance. Lastly, there is a replica of a much more famous statue which welcomes the poor and oppressed and celebrates basic freedom.
At the front and center of the statehouse, is a prominent statue of Thomas E. Watson. Watson was a political powerhouse in his day. In 1890, he was elected to congress as a Democrat. He soon broke with the Democrats and turned to the Populist party. The Populists advocated many positions which would be considered politically liberal today. He described economic conditions of his time as “modern Feudalism.” He spoke of wealthy men who “had marched to wealth and power over the thousand desolate farms, abandoned homes and broken-hearted men and women.”
In the early part of his political career Watson derided segregation and the political oppression of blacks. He spoke of the concept of white supremacy as a tool of the rich which was used to divide lower income peoples, black and white, and thus permit the oppression of both. In 1892, two years after his defeat in a congressional election, he stated in an article entitled The Negro Question in the South, “You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both.”
However, after a second defeat in 1894, he seemed to have second thoughts about permission of the black vote. By the early 1900′s he was advocating disenfranchisement of blacks from the voting booth.
In 1915, he complained about untaxed donations to black colleges and universities:
“Consequently when Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Ogden or some other millionaire Northerner donates millions to negro colleges in Georgia, and other States, these huge donations are to enjoy exemptions from public burdens.
“While young negro bucks are attending college in Atlanta, or at Hampton, or at Tuskegee, white men, with coats off, will be at work in the fields producing the money to pay the taxes of Booker Washington, the colored aristocracy who live so bountifully upon the gifts of Northern philanthropists.” (The Jeffersonian, July 15, 1915)
He remained a Populist, but he pushed through his liberal ideals as secondary to the maintenance of the racial class system of the South. Doing so, he became a political king maker in Georgia politics, engineering the successful election (along with appeals for black disenfranchisement) of another relative progressive, Hoke Smith, to the governor’s office in 1906.
Nearly always distrustful of Jews, by 1913 through his newspaper, The Jeffersonian, Watson was leading the charge against Leo Frank, a Jewish man who had been charged with killing a young woman in an Atlanta pencil factory. When Governor John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence to life imprisonment in June 1915, Watson was enraged. He published diatribes against Slaton and derided Franks character. On August 17th, Frank was hung from a tree in Marietta, Georgia, by a mob that included a former governor. Five years later, Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Democrat. He died before completing his term.
What I find most interesting about his statue on the statehouse grounds is its use as backdrop for news conferences by politicians of every political stripe and skin color. This man who advocated policies that have been demonized for generations by men and women of the political left and right occupies the most prominent location on the capitol grounds.
At the corner of Mitchell and Washington streets stands a monument to Civil War governor Joseph Emerson Brown and his wife. Brown led the state into a confederation of states opposed to the national government in 1861.
Civil War Governor Joseph Emerson Brown
In December 1860, when writing about the dangers of the “Black Republicans” and the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency, Brown said:
“They (poor Southern whites) are a superior race, and they feel and know it. Abolish slavery, and you make the negroes their equals, legally and socially (not naturally, for no human law can change God’s law) and you very soon make them all tenants, and reduce their wages for daily labor to the smallest pittance that will sustain life. Then the negro and the white man, and their families, must labor in the field together as equals. Their children must go to the same poor school together, if they are educated at all. They must go to church as equals; enter the Courts of justice as equals, sue and be sued as equals, sit on juries together as equals, have the right to give evidence in Court as equals, stand side by side in our military corps as equals, enter each others’ houses in social intercourse as equals; and very soon their children must marry together as equals. May our kind Heavenly Father avert the evil, and deliver the poor from such a fate. So soon as the slaves were at liberty, thousands of them would leave the cotton and rice fields in the lower parts of our State, and make their way to the healthier climate in the mountain region. We should have them plundering and stealing, robbing and killing, in all the lovely vallies of the mountains. This I can never consent to see.” (Joseph Brown’s Open Letter, December 7, 1860)
Two things strike me as interesting in this quote. First, Brown feared something that is considered basic today, something considered basic by some Americans of his own time such as Thaddeus Stevens, and by common men in other parts of the world – the equality of men (something referred to in the American Declaration of Independence). Even the Bible mentions that “God is not partial, but in every nation the man that fears him and works righteousness is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34, 35) But Brown implored the ‘Heavenly Father to avert the evil’ of men applying the Golden Rule.
Second, he was concerned that freed slaves would leave the humid regions and go to the mountains. But when you go to the Appalachians today, you’ll probably find many more Mexicans than African-Americans. In fact in most places in the mountains you’re unlikely to meet any black people apart from tourists…
Joseph Brown must have deeply instilled his racial beliefs in his son, later governor Joseph Mackey Brown. Joe junior went on to participate in the lynching of Leo Frank.
In 1928, a monument was erected to Joseph Brown on the Georgia capitol grounds, a man who hated the Golden Rule and who rebelled against the authority of the United States.
The picture at the start of this article features the image of John Brown Gordon. Gordon was a notable Southern general during the Civil War (aka The War Between The States, or The War of The Rebellion, depending on your point of view). By war’s end he was a 33 year old major general in Robert E. Lee’s army.
After the war and Reconstruction (which he vigorously opposed) he went on to become a governor and later a senator.
While serving as governor, he also headed the state’s Ku Klux Klan, at least in name. He may not have directly participated in terrorist actions against African-Americans or whites who did not support white supremacy, but he certainly went along with such conduct. Of course, the plaque beneath his statue makes no mention of that aspect of his life.
Plaque beneath the John Brown Gordon monument
Since his death, parts of two streets bearing his name (Gordon Street and Gordon Road) have been renamed Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive.
Prominent twentieth century senator Richard Russell is represented on the capitol grounds with a statue situated midway between the monuments of Joe Brown and Tom Watson.
Richard Russell monument
Prior to his election to the U.S. Senate in 1936, he served as Georgia’s governor from 1931 – 1933, taking his seat at the age of 33. His term in the senate ended with his death in 1971. While there he headed the Armed Services Committee for 16 years and helped bring the Centers for Disease Control to Atlanta. He seems to have been leary of sending American troops to Vietnam, but once America was committed, he supported the effort wholeheartedly.
Russell used the filibuster to block civil rights legislation, though he appears to have had no personal animosities to African-Americans. And he did not support violent suppression of their rights.
Three term Governor Eugene Talmadge
Eugene Talmadge served Georgia as governor three times and was elected a fourth time, though he did not live to take office after the last election. Many in his time, considered him a demagogue on par with Huey Long of Louisiana. He summarily removed some state officers by means of military force and he criticized Richard Russell as a tool of Franklin Roosevelt and a proponent of the New Deal. The New Deal, Talmadge believed, was the beginning of the end of white supremacy in the South. In addition, he attempted to block agricultural price supports and social welfare programs. Lastly, he tried to prevent Georgians from participating in the Social Security program.
Thirty-five year old Ellis Arnall, defeated the fifty-eight year old Talmadge in the governor’s race of 1942. Arnall was probably Georgia’s most progressive governor ever, even surpassing Jimmy Carter. The website newgeorgiaencyclopedia states, “He reformed the state penal system, repealed the poll tax, lowered the voting age, revised the state constitution, established a teachers’ retirement system, and paid off the long-existing state debt. Promising to end gubernatorial dictatorship in the state, Arnall led efforts to create eight constitutional boards in an effort to reduce the power of the governor. He also created a merit system for state employees and the State Ports Authority.”
His support of the progressive Henry A. Wallace as the Vice Presidential candidate of Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, helped doom his political career in Georgia. Wallace was known for his dislike of racism and his support of labor. Harry Truman succeeded Wallace as VP. Of course, many of those who supported Truman came to regret their decision when he initiated integration of America’s armed forces.
Arnall further cemented his political death by refusing to evade the Supreme Court’s decision that whites only political primaries were illegal. Talmadge defeated him in the 1946 governor’s race after denouncing Arnall as a race traitor.
1940′s Governor Ellis Arnall
Governor and later President Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter is honored by a statue on the capitol grounds. Enough has been written and said about him to allow me to skip historical commentary apart from one thing. When he ran for governor in 1970, he appealed to the racist inclinations of some white voters by saying that as governor he would invite segregationist Alabama governor, George Wallace, to address the Georgia General Assembly. Of course, in the end he proved to be very progressive on racial matters and he has since been vilified by conservative talk radio in Georgia.
Below you see the one monument to the struggles of Georgia’s African-Americans. It stands about 4 feet high on what appear to be concrete cinder blocks in a somewhat remote location on the capitol grounds.
African-American monument on Georgia capitol grounds
While the monuments to segregationists and a Klansman loom large, the monument representing the struggles of nearly half of the state’s population is small and looks flimsy.
The state’s most prominent citizen ever, Martin Luther King Jr., has no statue at the capitol. But the city renamed a street right beside the statehouse in his honor, taking that approbation away from the Klansman governor.
Lastly, among the statues to be found on the statehouse grounds is a miniature Statue of Liberty.
Replica of the Statue of Liberty
I wonder how the rulers of Georgia really feel about this inscription:
Inscription for the Statue of Liberty on Georgia capitol grounds (click the picture to enlarge)