Rodney Earl Slater was born in Marianna, Lee County, Arkansas on February 23, 1955.
Slater graduated from Eastern Michigan University in 1977 with degrees in political science and communication. In 1980, he graduated from the University of Arkansas School of Law. He served as Arkansas's assistant attorney general from 1980–1982 and was appointed to the Arkansas Highway Commission in 1987. He became the first African American director of the Federal Highway Administration. Slater then served as United States Secretary of Transportation from 1997 to 2001.
In 2001 Slater joined the law firm of Patton Boggs LLP as a partner and in 2004 joined as a partner with James Lee Witt Associates. He also serves on several boards including the Dance Theatre of Harlem, Delta Air Lines, Inc., United Way, and Verizon Communications, Inc.