Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Slater, Rodney(1955–) - Becomes First Black on Highway Commission, Chronology, Named U.S. Secretary of Transportation

Secretary of transportation, lawyer

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Overcoming the poverty and segregation of the Arkansas Mississippi Delta region, Rodney Slater gained national prominence as the chief administrator of the U.S. Federal Highway Administration and the secretary of transportation during President Clinton’s second term. His rise to distinction resulted from his skillful understanding of the transportation industry and his ability to form coalitions in an environment of fierce competition and rivalry.

Rodney Earl Slater was born out of wedlock to Velma Slater on February 23, 1955 in Tutwyler, Mississippi. His mother soon moved with her newborn son to the town of Marianna in her home state of Arkansas. Shortly afterward, Velma married Earl Brewer, a mechanic and maintenance man, who fathered Slater’s four halfsiblings—two brothers and two sisters. Brewer instilled in Rodney Slater a strong work ethic. Slater remarked in an interview with Ebony : “[his father] was the person who was there. He was the person who worked five and six jobs to make it possible for my brothers and sisters to enjoy the things that were important.” By age six, Slater had hired himself out to work in the cotton fields. He was strongly influenced by the elders of the neighborhood with whom he worked and lived. When Slater was in the third grade, his family moved into a public housing project where he remained throughout his childhood.

As a youngster growing up in Marianna, Slater showed a knack for public speaking. At age six, he read Bible passages on a radio program broadcasted from the church he attended. As a fourth grader, Slater was an accomplished public speaker, reading from the works of James Weldon Johnson, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others. Slater also became interested in government. Slater’s former classmate, Carolyn Elliot, recalled in an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette interview, that “a sixth grade teacher named Willie Neal … challenged us to know about government, to know about ourselves. I think that probably was a turning point.”

When Slater was in the tenth grade, the school district consolidated its white and black high schools. Racial tensions were high in Marianna at the time. When blacks boycotted white-owned businesses, Governor Dale Bumpers sent in state police to suppress the conflict. A dozen businesses in the city closed as a result of the boycott. On January 13, 1972, during Slater’s junior year at Lee Senior High School, a sit-down strike by students to gain permission to hold an assembly in honor of Martin Luther King’s birthday became disorderly when police used high-pressure water hoses to break up the strike. The incident led Slater and others to boycott the school. Slater and over two hundred other students were arrested and put on trial for inciting a riot. Through the efforts of African American civil rights attorney John Walker, the charges were dropped. Slater’s great admiration for John Walker and the courtroom experience inspired him to pursue a career as a lawyer.

Slater enrolled at Eastern Michigan University in 1973 on a football scholarship. At Eastern Michigan, Slater excelled both athletically, as co-captain of the football team, and academically. Dennis Beagan, a college speech professor, was so impressed with Slater’s performance in class that he offered him a spot on the school’s nationally recognized forensics team. Slater made it to the national quarterfinals in the “interpretation of prose” category. At graduation in 1977, he was given the Eastern Michigan University Top Ten Student Award.

Slater returned to Arkansas and attended law school at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He was mentored there by William Haley, the second black ever to graduate from the law school. Slater’s knack for developing relationships with older, more experienced leaders helped him to excel professionally.

Immediately after graduation in 1979, he began working at the Arkansas State Attorney General’s Office in Fayetteville. In 1980, Slater’s future father-in-law, state representative Henry Wilkins of Pine Bluff, introduced him to Arkansas governor and future U.S. president Bill Clinton. Slater quickly gained a good rapport with the governor. Clinton was later quoted in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette as saying that he “put a lot of trust in him when he was young because I knew—when he was first working for me with the black community—that the older ministers, the older doctors, the older business people, the people that he dealt with, I knew they would trust him.”

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