Editor’s Viewpoint: Mad dogs and Americans
Laws are the rules that keep society civil, but without public servants, laws might as well not exist. Georgia Gov. John Slaton, the state’s chief executive in the early 1900s, understood that principle when he found himself the last hope of Leo Frank, an Atlanta pencil company supervisor who had been convicted of murdering an employee in 1913.
The U.S. Supreme Court had rejected Frank’s judicial appeals, and his attorneys asked Slaton to commute the sentence. At the same time, Tom Watson, a newspaper editor and publisher in nearby Jefferson, Ga., began writing a series of editorials, laced with anti-Semitism aimed at Frank, that re-ignited local interest in the case.
By the time Slaton read through the original court documents and visited the site of the murder, there was intense pressure on him to allow the execution. Based on his review and appeals from the judge who presided over the case, who expressed serious doubts about the trial’s outcome, Slaton was convinced of Frank’s innocence. On his last day in office, he commuted Frank’s sentence to life in prison. Later that day, a mob assembled outside the governor’s mansion, and the National Guard had to escort Slaton and his wife to the train station so they could leave Atlanta.
To protect Frank, the police moved him from Atlanta to the state penitentiary in Milledgeville. Watson continued to fan the flames of hatred by publishing more editorials, some of which called on Georgians to take justice into their own hands.
The mad dogs were unleashed: 25 armed men left Atlanta, overtook the prison guards, promptly drove Frank to an Atlanta suburb and lynched him.
Another mad dog was unleashed in America this month, but of the many things that can be said about the recent murders in Arizona, the most disturbing is knowing that the same tragedy has happened before, and it will happen again. While the heat that is generated by divisive ideas can blister our civil skin, neither dissonant political discussion nor even acts of kindness ultimately will affect the unreasoning, disturbed person who wants to blast his way through our veneer of civility.
America’s public servants understand that they are defending our nation of laws. And when Georgia’s Gov. Slaton was called on to do so, he knew that he was the only person between the mad dogs and a civilized society.
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