“Courage,” “bravery” and similar terms are thrown around far too much in politics. After all, what is an elected official putting at risk when he or she takes a principled stand? Cruel comments from the public? Criticism from the media? A premature exit from public life, often accompanied by an earlier opportunity to cash in post-politics?
Even political suicide is not the end; it’s just the start of something different.
So believe us when we say that John Slaton showed true courage, not just political backbone, when he took a principled stand in the final days of his second and last term as governor of Georgia.
Slaton risked his life to try to save another.
That’s not hyperbole. After the governor commuted Leo Frank’s death sentence to life in prison June 21, 1915, Slaton needed the protection of the Georgia National Guard to escape the mob at the inauguration of his successor a few days later. The death threats forced Slaton and his wife to flee the state when his term ended; they didn’t move back for a decade.
Much has been said and written about Slaton in the century since he declared the evidence against Frank to be unconvincing and thus rejected the ugly, hate-filled will of the people.
He has been idealized on the big and small screen as a profile in courage and shamelessly attacked by cynics and Frank-haters as the poster child for conflict of interest because one of his law partners served on the Frank defense team.
But the shame belongs to all of us who call Georgia home that somehow it took a full 100 years for Slaton to receive the public honor he has always deserved in the city where he made a long career devoted to the rule of law. We thank the history organizations and concerned individuals whose tireless pursuit of justice led to the unveiling of a Slaton marker June 17.
It doesn’t matter that Frank died less than two months after the governor spared him, the only Jewish victim of a lynching in U.S. history. What matters is that Slaton decided the rule of law was worth the risk to his own life.
“We need to remember those who stood tall in defense of the rule of law, to inspire all of us who need to stand tall when the rule of law is again threatened, as it is in one way or another almost every day,” Georgia Supreme Court Justice David Nahmias said at the unveiling ceremony.
Why did Slaton surrender his own safety in what proved to be the fruitless effort to save the life of someone so many of his fellow Georgians despised?
It was simple: When he did his due diligence, he found ample reasons to doubt Frank’s guilt, and he embraced the unassailable principle that the state requires absolute certainty to kill a citizen.
“I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation,” Slaton wrote in the commutation message, “but I cannot stand the constant companionship of an accusing conscience, which would remind me in every thought that I, as a Governor of Georgia, failed to do what I thought to be right.”
Would that we all were so driven by conscience to do the right thing.