Legislator, congressman. Watson was born in Sumter on August 30, 1922, the son of Claude A. Watson and Eva Clark. He attended public schools in Columbia, North Greenville Junior College, and the University of South Carolina. During World War II he served in the U.S. Army Air Force as a weather specialist in the Mediterranean theater of operations from 1942 to 1946. He married Lillian Audrey Williams of Walterboro on May 24, 1948. They had three children. He earned a law degree from the University of South Carolina School of Law in 1950 and began practicing law in Columbia the following year.
Watson was first elected to the South Carolina General Assembly in 1954 and served from 1955 to 1958 and from 1961 to 1962. He was also an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor. In 1957 he served as national chairman for the Voice of Democracy Program for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce.
In 1962 Watson was elected as a Democrat to the U.S. House of Representatives from the Second Congressional District. He was reelected in 1964 but resigned from Congress on February 1, 1965, after he was stripped of his seniority by the House Democratic Caucus for his support of Republican candidate Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. Watson then switched to the Republican Party and was reelected in a special election on June 15, 1965. Watson was reelected to Congress in 1966 and in 1968.
In 1970 Watson ran for governor against John West, one of his former law school teachers. Watson, an opponent of school integration, made a speech in Darlington County during the campaign urging residents to “use every means at your disposal to defend” the state against what he considered an illegal federal court order on school desegregation. Nine days later a white mob attacked three buses carrying African American children to school in the Darlington County town of Lamar, overturning one of them. While no one was injured, many of Watson’s critics blamed the incident on his speech. He was also criticized during the campaign for a commercial showing African Americans rioting in Los Angeles. Although Watson received a majority of the white vote, he received only forty-six percent of the total vote to his opponent’s fifty-two percent and was defeated in the gubernatorial election.
After Watson was defeated, President Richard Nixon nominated him to the United States Military Court of Appeals, a civilian court that reviews courts-martial. However, protests from civil rights groups and others resulted in Nixon withdrawing the nomination. In 1973 Watson was appointed as a federal administrative law judge for the U.S. Social Security Administration. He died on September 25, 1994, in Columbia and was buried in Crescent Hill Memorial Gardens.
Hathorn, Billy B. “The Changing Politics of Race: Congressman Albert William Watson and the S.C. Republican Party, 1965–1970.” South Carolina Historical Magazine 89 (October 1988): 227–41.
Kalk, Bruce H. The Origins of the Southern Strategy: Two-Party Competition in South Carolina, 1950–1972. Lanham, Md.: Lexington, 2001.