Maddox, Lester Garfield

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Maddox, Lester Garfield

(b. 30 September 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 25 June 2003 in Atlanta, Georgia), governor and lieutenant governor of Georgia who resisted the racial integration of his restaurant and was an outspoken segregationist.

Maddox, the second of the seven children born to Dean, a machinist, and Flonnie (Cox) Maddox, was raised in a working-class neighborhood of Atlanta where chickens ran loose and African Americans lived in shacks along alleys near the modest but more substantial homes of white families such as the Maddoxes. During the Great Depression Maddox dropped out of school and worked at a series of jobs. He completed his high school education by taking correspondence courses. Maddox married Virginia Cox on 9 May 1936, and the couple had four children. As a parent working in war-related civilian jobs, Maddox was not subject to the World War II draft.

Longing to be his own boss, Maddox opened a short-order grill in 1944. He sold the cafe, dabbled in real estate and groceries, and then returned to the restaurant business in 1947, opening the Pickrick on U.S. Highway 41 near the Georgia Institute of Technology, also known as Georgia Tech. The Pickrick flourished, serving its signature fried chicken to an exclusively white clientele.

In 1949 Maddox began running regular newspaper advertisements titled “Pickrick Says.” Starting in 1954 Maddox’s distress at school desegregation decisions and local issues turned many of his Pickrick messages from folksy to angry. Soon he became a locally famous champion of disaffected whites. In 1957 Maddox launched an independent campaign against Mayor William B. Hartsfield, a white moderate who had forged an alliance between the business community and Atlanta’s growing black electorate. Maddox lost, but he carried approximately half of the white vote.

Maddox remained active in racist circles and continued to use his “Pickrick Says” advertisements as a forum for attacking integration in general and alleged city government corruption in particular. In 1961 he ran for mayor again, this time against the white business leader Ivan Allen, Jr., who had helped negotiate the peaceful desegregation of most of Atlanta’s restaurants (but not the Pickrick). The slightly built and balding Maddox stood in contrast to the suave and sophisticated Allen. Issues of race and class dominated the campaign. As he had in 1957, Maddox won a narrow majority of the white vote, but a combination of blacks and moderate whites sent the business-backed Allen to city hall.

Convinced that he could not win in Atlanta, Maddox ran for lieutenant governor of Georgia in 1962. He lost in the runoff to an establishment segregationist who was less flamboyant. The defeat might have ended Maddox’s political career had he not turned the Pickrick into the nation’s most notorious symbol of resistance to the public-accommodation provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In a newspaper advertisement in the spring of 1964, Maddox proclaimed, “Just in case some of you Communists, Socialists, and other Integrationists have any doubt—The Pickrick will never be integrated.” Blacks had protested at the Pickrick in 1962 and 1963 but to no avail, so it was no surprise that local civil rights strategists made the restaurant a key target as soon as the new law went into effect. On 3 July 1964 Maddox, carrying a small revolver, and his son, Lester, Jr., wielding a pickax handle, drove black protesters away from the Pickrick. The next day an Associated Press photograph of the incident appeared all over the United States, including above the fold on the front page of the New York Times. To many southern whites the defiant restaurateur stood as a hero defending his rights as a property owner. To the Atlanta business establishment Maddox was an embarrassing deviation from the city’s carefully cultivated “too busy to hate” image. In February 1965, having exhausted legal options, Maddox closed his beloved Pickrick rather than integrate it. The pickax handles that he sold as souvenirs became the emblem of his defiance.

Capitalizing on his notoriety, Maddox launched a campaign for governor in 1966. Despite running a severely underfunded campaign and despite his lack of traditional political connections, Maddox defeated Ellis Arnall, a moderate former governor, in the Democratic primary runoff. In the general election the wealthy and conservative Republican congressman Howard “Bo” Call-away won a narrow plurality. Because of write-in votes for Arnall, however, neither Maddox nor Callaway earned the necessary majority to be elected. The Georgia constitution put the choice in the hands of the Democrat-controlled legislature, which chose Maddox in a party-line vote.

As governor, Maddox continued to be an anti-integration firebrand, and he proudly associated with Governor George Wallace of Alabama and other segregationist icons. Maddox’s derisive stance at the time of the Atlanta funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968 further cemented his national reputation as a throwback to the Old South. In 1969 Maddox told a Citizen’s Council leadership conference, “I’m a segregationist and proud of it.” A Randy Newman song and a short-lived off-Broadway play ridiculed Maddox’s antics and racism. In 1970 Maddox journeyed to Washington, D.C., for the National Governors’ Conference and a chance to testify against extension of the Voting Rights Act. He brought along some of his souvenir pickax handles and entered into a widely publicized confrontation with the African-American congressman Charles Diggs, Jr., of Michigan.

Maddox’s gubernatorial accomplishments had little to do with overtly racial issues. He gave verbal endorsement to but did not actively work for several bills proposed to thwart school desegregation. He encouraged the development of segregation academies but implemented no policies to support them. He met with black legislative leaders, and he appointed more blacks to advisory boards and white collar jobs than his predecessors had. In contrast to his right-wing positions on race, war, and culture, Maddox’s fiscal policies were not conservative. Known as a champion of the “little people,” Maddox supported increased funding for public safety and education, and he strongly backed prison reform. Maddox improved state purchasing, fought corruption, and cleaned up a county notorious for its speed trap and other illegal activities. Maddox’s integrity, honesty, and sincerity were never questioned, even by his staunchest opponents. As a political outsider, the governor had relatively little clout with the legislature, which resisted his calls for a sales tax increase to fund additional spending increases for mental health, welfare, prisons, and other programs. James F. Cook, the leading historian of Georgia governors, concluded that aside from Maddox’s colorful antics, “the most remarkable feature” of his governorship “may have been how little it differed from those that preceded it.”

Unwilling to leave center stage but unable by law to succeed himself, Maddox in 1970 ran for lieutenant governor and won convincingly. The new governor was Maddox’s political enemy, Jimmy Carter, and their relationship was tense. With little official duty other than presiding over the state senate during its forty-day session, Maddox spent much of his time as lieutenant governor giving arch-conservative speeches around the state to civic clubs, churches, and any group that would listen. Maddox sought to return to the governorship in 1974, but he lost in the Democratic primary runoff.

Lacking a tight political organization, Maddox ran all of his political campaigns on a shoestring. He left office in 1974 heavily in debt, and his quixotic run for the U.S. presidency against Carter in 1976 worsened his financial situation. Maddox’s highly defensive autobiography, Speaking Out (1975), did not make much money. A brief return to the restaurant business was unsuccessful. Maddox’s souvenir shop selling pickax handles and other southern-themed merchandise failed to thrive. Maddox even tried a song and dance act. He suffered a serious heart attack in 1977, which was a financial as well as physical setback. After the heart attack, leading politicians, including Zell Miller, who had been executive secretary to Governor Maddox, organized a fund-raising effort that eventually paid off Maddox’s debts. Real estate proved to be the most lucrative of Maddox’s postgubernatorial enterprises, but he never became wealthy. Maddox recovered from prostate cancer surgery in 1982 and resumed his attacks on so-called liberals and race mixers, even posting signs in the front yard of his home on a busy corner in Cobb County, north of Atlanta. In 1987 Maddox vigorously defended his administration at a history forum on Georgia’s former governors, and then three years later he made a last stab at the governorship. Maddox finished last, winning only 3 percent of the Democratic primary vote. During the 1990s Maddox earned the spotlight again by speaking out strongly in favor of retaining the Confederate battle flag as part of the Georgia state flag. As late as 1999 Maddox fired off a six-page letter lambasting a columnist for supposed misrepresentation of his governorship.

Virginia Maddox died in 1997. After Virginia’s death, Maddox made few public appearances, and his health declined. He died in an Atlanta hospice on 25 June 2003 of complications of pneumonia and a fall. He is buried in Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs, Georgia, an unincorporated suburb north of Atlanta.

George Wallace moderated on race. Strom Thurmond, the governor of and then U.S. senator from South Carolina, softened. Even Jimmy Carter started his political career as a segregationist. They changed. Lester Maddox did not. Even if Maddox had lived to be one hundred as Thurmond did, it is doubtful that the former Georgia governor ever would have changed his attitudes. The legacy of racism overshadows Maddox’s populist zeal for helping the downtrodden and the real, if modest, accomplishments of his gubernatorial administration.

Bob Short, Everything Is Pickrick: The Life of Lester Maddox (1999), is a useful but apologetic popular biography. It adds little to Speaking Out. A contemporary, more analytical biography is Bruce Galphin, The Riddle of Lester Maddox (1968). Bradley R. Rice, “Lester Maddox and the Politics of Populism,” in Georgia Governors in an Age of Change (1988), edited by Harold P. Henderson and Gary L. Roberts; and James F. Cook, The Governors of Georgia (2005), are the standard references. Justin Nystrom, “Segregation’s Last Stand: Lester Maddox and the Transformation of Atlanta,” Atlanta History (Summer 2001): 35–51, makes good use of interviews. Obituaries are in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Times (all 26 June 2003).

Bradley R. Rice