The Governor of Georgia faced a difficult decision. It pitted his conscience and sense of duty against the popular sentiment in the state at an emotional time.
He knew that if he did what he believed was right and used his unique power as the chief executive of the state, he’d pay a huge political price.
It was the worst kind of dilemma, not one he’d chosen but one forced upon him by circumstance. And the nation’s eyes were upon him.
In 1915, Gov. John M. Slaton was in the second of his two-year terms as governor. A University of Georgia graduate and lawyer, he’d proved himself a capable politician. Some expected him to become Georgia’s next senator, as the man he’d succeeded had done.
But then along came the infamous Leo Frank case.
Frank ran the National Pencil Co. factory in Atlanta. A 13-year-old girl who worked there was found dead in the basement, and the brutal rape and murder outraged the public.
Police turned their attention to Frank, who was Jewish. He was the last person to acknowledge seeing the girl alive.
The investigation and trial, which drew national attention, included plenty of volatile elements:
The Jewish factory boss on trial among a wave of anti-Semitism. Exploited workers toiling away for low wages. One witness that might himself have committed the crime. A bloodthirsty public that wanted justice.
The highly emotional trial took place in a courthouse surrounded by a crowd that cheered the prosecutor as he arrived each day, according to the New Georgia Encyclopedia.
After a trial that lasted 25 days, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death.
His lawyers attempted several appeals, but were unsuccessful, including before the U.S. Supreme Court.
In his last hope, Frank turned to Gov. Slaton and asked that his sentence be commuted.
Slaton took on the request, reportedly visiting the pencil factory and reviewing more than 10,000 pages of documents.
He saw the trial as unfair and the evidence as flimsy, so Slaton changed Frank’s sentence to life in prison, and he hoped that over time Frank would be proven innocent. He did so just days before leaving office.
And he knew that his political career was over.
“I can endure misconstruction, abuse and condemnation,” Slaton said in his order. “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.”
The public felt differently; people in Atlanta rioted, and some marched to the governor’s mansion. Slaton was hung in effigy.
He had to declare martial law. He left office, and then fled the state under a police guard when his term ended. He didn’t return for 10 years.
A couple of months after the change in his sentence, Frank, imprisoned in Milledgeville, was dragged from his cell, taken to Marietta and lynched.
A historical marker was placed in Cobb County in 2008, noting Frank’s lynching and the fact that his killers were never brought to justice. A couple of weeks ago, people gathered near the Atlanta History Center in Buckhead to unveil a marker honoring Slaton on the 100th anniversary of his decision to commute Frank’s sentence.
Among the attendees was former Gov. Roy Barnes, a guy who knows a little about finding himself at the crossroads of political pragmatism and a difficult decision.
It was Barnes who led the charge to change Georgia’s flag in 2001. He, too, would find himself in political exile over it — although some say it was more than the flag that led him there.
It turns out that Barnes has studied Slaton, and was deliberate in his choice to participate in the marker ceremony, as he told me later on the phone.
“John Slaton was indeed a profile in courage,” Barnes said. “Both of us understood there are limits to ambition. You have to do your duty.”
Barnes emphasized that sometimes politicians find themselves at a moment in time when they can actually lead an important change, but before the public — and voters — are ready for it.
And he does have the advantage of explaining himself within the context of today’s events.
“I didn’t want to fool with the flag,” he said. “It came up on my watch. Slaton went through the same process.”
As the current controversy boils about the Confederate battle flag and other symbols of the old South, Slaton’s difficult decision remains important and instructive. At the marker ceremony, Atlanta History Center CEO Sheffield Hale referred to Slaton’s “heroism and moral fiber,” and said what Slaton did remains remarkable in Georgia history.
The current situation is complicated for Gov. Nathan Deal. According to a CNN poll, 75 percent of Southern whites consider the Confederate flag a symbol of pride; 18 percent consider it a symbol of racism. The numbers are flipped for African-Americans in the South.
When asked about the controversy around Confederate symbols, Deal told the AJC’s Greg Bluestein: “I’m not closing the door on anything. But we have to be cautious that we don’t get caught up on a sweep of emotion here and fail to recognize the heritage that is associated with these symbols and these holidays. We cannot deny our heritage, and the purpose of many of these is to celebrate that heritage. I’m going to be cautious in that regard, and I would hope that everyone else would as well.”
It’s hard to imagine that someday we’ll read those words on a historical marker.