By Dave Schechter | firstname.lastname@example.org
Save for one act, Georgia Gov. John Marshall Slaton would not receive such attention a century after he left office.
His achievements as governor — protecting a state-owned railroad from competition, devising a tax equalization system, paying teachers’ salaries in full and enhancing the state’s financial reputation — do not explain the acclaim he receives today.
Save for one courageous act.
On June 21, 1915, just days before leaving office and in the face of overwhelming public hostility, Slaton commuted to life imprisonment the death sentence given Leo Frank after his conviction for the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old Marietta girl who worked in the Atlanta pencil factory Frank managed.
A marker honoring Slaton was unveiled Wednesday, June 17, on the grounds of the Atlanta History Center along Slaton Drive, just off West Paces Ferry Road and close to the Slaton family home.
The plaque reads in part: “Concerned by the sensationalized atmosphere and circumstantial evidence that led to the notorious 1913 conviction of Jewish businessman Leo Frank in the murder of teenager Mary Phagan, Slaton granted Frank clemency in June 1915. Slaton’s commutation of Frank’s death sentence drew national attention but hostile local backlash resulted in Frank’s lynching in August 1915 and the end of Slaton’s political career.”
“One hundred years ago, on a hot Georgia day kind of like today, a group of prominent Georgians and a mob gathered together to celebrate the lynching of a Jew. We gather together 100 years later to celebrate one of the few prominent Georgians who stood up against the mob and to celebrate, really, the rule of law,” said David Nahmias, an associate justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. “It is important to remember the people who stand tall in defense of the rule of law.”
Two months after Slaton stood tall in defense of the rule of law, Frank was abducted from the state penitentiary in Milledgeville and driven to Marietta, where he was hanged Aug. 17, 1915 — the only known lynching of a Jew in the United States.
Slaton (1866-1955) had a long career in public service. He represented Fulton County in the Georgia House of Representatives and served as speaker of the House, then was elected to the state Senate. He was appointed acting governor in 1911 after Hoke Smith was elected to the U.S. Senate and served in that capacity until 1912. He later was elected governor in his own right and served from 1913 to 1915.
John W. Wallace Jr., a great-great-nephew of Slaton’s, accepted the honor on behalf of his family and quoted from the governor’s statement of commutation: “I can endure misconstruction, abuse, and condemnation, but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.”
Slaton’s act of courage has been remembered in stage, screen and television productions. He’s likely the only person portrayed by both of the original “Odd Couple” actors: Walter Matthau in an episode of the television program “Profiles in Courage” and Jack Lemmon in a TV movie about the Frank case.
In a recent opinion piece for the Marietta Daily Journal, Rabbi Steven Lebow of Temple Kol Emeth in East Cobb wrote: “Looking back at the last century, only two Georgia governors will be recognized as political heroes. Only two governors sacrificed their careers in Georgia, in order to do the right thing. The most recent was Roy Barnes, who lost his bid for re-election in 2003 (in part) because he had championed removing the Confederate Battle symbol from the Georgia Flag.”
Barnes attended the unveiling and, though not a scheduled speaker, was invited to address the 80 people at the ceremony.
“This day is long overdue,” said Barnes, lauding Slaton for “courage in the face of fear and hatred” and lamenting “how the best of our community” came to hate so much as to resort to murder.
“You cannot be from Cobb County and not know about Leo Frank,” Barnes said. His wife’s grandfather was a member of the lynching party, whose organizers included prominent residents of Marietta and Cobb County.
Before his arrest, Frank was the president of an Atlanta lodge of B’nai B’rith, which founded the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 to counter not only anti-Semitism but also other forms of bigotry. The Frank case spurred the ADL’s growth. A century later, Shelley Rose, the senior associate Southeast regional director of the ADL, hailed Slaton, telling the gathering that he “made the right decision, and he stood by his principles.”
In his commutation order, Slaton downplayed the issue of prejudice against Jews as a result of the Frank case: “The charge against the State of Georgia of racial prejudice is unfair. A conspicuous Jewish family in Georgia is descended from one of the original colonial families of the State. Jews have been presidents of our Boards of Education, principals of our schools, Mayors of our cities, and conspicuous in all our commercial enterprises.”
Slaton acted after reviewing thousands of pages of documents from the trial. He was hanged in effigy. A mob estimated at more than 1,000 people attempted to march on the governor’s home and was rebuffed by troops from the Georgia National Guard. The resulting fury briefly drove him and his wife, Sallie, from the state.
“John Slaton defined his moment in history,” said Van Pearlberg, a Marietta resident and the senior assistant attorney general of Georgia. He noted that Slaton contrasted himself with “another governor who turned a Jew over to a mob,” a reference to Pontius Pilate and Jesus.
Slaton, Pearlberg said, “chose the harder right rather than the easier wrong.”