Former Gov. Lester Maddox dies at age 87
By TOM BAXTER and BILL MONTGOMERY
Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writers
Lester Maddox – the restaurateur who became a symbol of segregationist defiance and then Georgia governor in a fluke election – died this morning at an Atlanta hospice. He was 87.
Family members confirmed his death at 1:59 a.m. in a statement released through Gov. Sonny Perdue's office.
Maddox – who had battled cancer since 1983 – cracked two ribs when he fell about 10 days ago at an assisted living home where he was recovering from intestinal surgery.
He later developed pneumonia and was placed in an Atlanta hospice.
Maddox will be remembered as one of the civil rights era's most unusual characters.
Maddox was a born showman, selling fried chicken and voicing the raw reaction of whites to desegregation with equal gusto. He used every trick from riding a bicycle backwards to playing the harmonica to stay in the public eye, and sold souvenir copies of the pick handles infamously used to drive would-be black customers from his restaurant.
It was largely an accident of the turbulent desegregation era that Maddox became governor in 1967. He used the office as a national stage for his right-wing views, but showed a progressive side in his approach to issues such as prison reform.
With his bald pate, round glasses and prominent ears, Maddox was a ripe subject for cartoonists. He even tried his hand at show business after leaving office. But he had an important role in the state's history: the transition from Maddox to Jimmy Carter marked the decisive turning point in Georgia's response to the racial questions that had been lingering since the Civil War.
While Maddox articulated a potent mixture of both racial and class resentment, which made him a major figure in Georgia, he never was taken as seriously nationally as his contemporary, Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, said Merle Black, a professor of political science at Emory University.
"(Maddox) seemed milder once he got in office. He really hearkened back to the idea of political activity as a form of entertainment and showmanship," said Black, co-author of several books on Southern politics.
Becoming an anachronism
But unlike Wallace, Maddox never asked to be forgiven for things said and done during the height of the South's debate over race. To the end, he remained a true believer in himself.
"For some in government, I did ruffle a few feathers and proved to be a thorn in their flesh. However, that was their problem, not mine," Maddox wrote in his later years.
Maddox, the only Atlantan to serve as Georgia's governor, served from 1967 to 1971. He might have been elected to a second term had the state constitution then allowed governors to succeed themselves. Instead, he settled for lieutenant governor from 1971-75, leaving little doubt that
he would try to regain the governor's office.
However, quieter times and the changing electorate made Maddox an anachronism in four years, and he lost his 1974 run for governor. The Democrat followed that with a brief fling in 1976 as a presidential candidate under the banner of the American Independent Party.
Not content to stay on the sidelines, he attempted a comeback in 1990 at age 74, finishing a distant last in a field of five in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Though long out of politics, Maddox was still courting attention as recently as September 2001. The then-86-year-old wrote a letter urging state legislators to reject any effort to return straight-ticket voting to Georgia. The effort didn't pass.
In his final years, struggling with ill health and financial problems, Maddox became an example of how to face adversity with courage and pluck.
Try, try ... and try again
Born in Atlanta, Maddox sold newspapers and peanuts on the streets. During the Depression, he once said, "I didn't have any socks to wear to school, and the holes in my shoes were patched with cardboard."
His father lost his job and their home, so Maddox dropped out of Tech High School to work full time. He was a $4-a-week drugstore soda jerk, a delivery boy, an apprentice dental technician and a stock boy at a jewelers' supply house.
His father paid $25 for a shed, which he hauled away from a golf course, and the younger Maddox set up a vending stand in the front yard, selling soft drinks and penny candy.
In 1945, with $400 in savings, Maddox opened Lester's Grill, a combination short-order eatery, ice cream parlor and general store at the corner of 14th and State streets. He ran it for two years.
On Dec. 7, 1947, he started a new enterprise that would become his trademark. It was the Pickrick Restaurant on Hemphill Avenue, near Georgia Tech.
The food became a drawing card, and so did Maddox. He mingled with customers, poured their iced tea and shared their gossip.
His political ambitions germinated at the Pickrick. They were fertilized by white discomfort over the Supreme Court's landmark 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education, and the civil rights revolution it helped ignite.
Maddox's early ventures into the political arena as a hard-right conservative were unsuccessful. In his first race, for mayor of Atlanta in 1957, he lost to incumbent William B. Hartsfield. He lost to Ivan Allen Jr. for mayor in 1961 and he finished second to Peter Zack Geer, another segregationist, in a field of nine seeking to be lieutenant governor in 1962.
Maddox was branded a perennial loser. An incident in 1964 changed that.
In the wake of the Civil Rights Act desegregating public accommodations, three Atlanta activists sought to integrate the Pickrick Restaurant. They were met by Maddox, holding a pistol, and friends wielding pick handles. A photo of the incident, published in newspapers, made the nervous little businessman a nationwide symbol and a hero to segregationists.
Winning the Governorship
Maddox closed the restaurant soon after and began running for governor as a no-compromise segregationist.
Former Gov. Ellis Arnall, trying for a comeback, led in the primary, 231,480 votes to 185,762 for Maddox and 164,562 for Jimmy Carter. Arnall won a plurality, but not a majority as required by a 1964 law.
In a runoff, Maddox scored one of the state's biggest political upsets, 433,055 votes to 373,004 for Arnall. Republicans could vote in the Democratic runoff, having no primary of their own, and many backed Maddox because they considered him an easier target for their candidate, Howard "Bo" Callaway. In the general election, Callaway received 453,665 votes to 450,626 for Maddox. But there were 45,603 write-in votes for Arnall, meaning Callaway did not have a majority. The election was turned over to the Democratic state Legislature, which on Jan. 10, 1967, elected Maddox governor, 192-66.
Maddox surprised many. His term was free of corruption, and critics discovered a side to their new governor they could not have discerned from his rhetoric: a genuine caring for people and their problems, regardless of color. Four black escapees from a south Georgia work camp paid a surprise visit to Maddox at the Governor's Mansion; the result was a Maddox-ordered investigation of the state's prisons.
One of the best-known remarks of his administration came when he observed that, to fully implement prison reform, "We're going to have to get a better grade of prisoner."
The new governor got teachers a 25 percent raise and took on local corruption in southeast Georgia's Long County, ordering billboards erected that warned drivers of speed traps in the area.
At the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Georgia's votes were contested between regular delegates led by Maddox and state chairman James H. Gray and, on the other hand, a slate led by state Rep. Julian Bond, who said the Maddox delegation had but a 2.01 percent representation of Georgia blacks. The credentials committee proposed a split delegation. Maddox refused, and walked out. Maddox remained a vocal foe of "race-mixing" and "black radicals," but appointed more blacks to state boards and commissions than all prior governors combined. He named 38 blacks to local draft boards at a time when only two had ever been appointed before and named the first black member to the Board of Pardons and Paroles.
During those years, Georgia experienced an economic surge as national firms flocked to locate here. Maddox let stand 1968 state legislation sought by the city of Atlanta permitting alcohol sales at the airport. Maddox opened the doors of the governor's office to the common folks, with weekly "Little People's Days." Families of prisoners seeking aid for their loved ones, job-hunters, welfare recipients, complainers, cranks and the curious – black and white – sought Maddox's ear. Some called it a publicity stunt, but entree to the state's highest official undeniably humanized state government.
These gestures sparked talk of a "new Maddox," but in truth he never shed his gut-level beliefs in racial separation, free enterprise, anti-communism, fundamental Christianity and moral absolutes. He banned miniskirts in the Capitol, insisted that male members of his staff have their hair cut above their ears, and summoned staff members to his office each morning for Bible-reading and prayer.
Maddox never made peace with the journalistic world that defined him, and in fact seemed to thrive on his lifelong feud with what he called the "Media-Led Political Establishment." His official portrait, which hangs in the Capitol, features a photo of his beloved wife Virginia, and a copy of The Atlanta Constitution wrapped around a fish.
Barred from succeeding himself in 1970, Maddox considered running his wife for governor, as Wallace had in Alabama four years earlier. Instead, he became the first Georgia governor to seek the office of lieutenant governor.
Maddox kept in the news with frequent rhetorical blasts – at Gov. Jimmy Carter, communists and liberals. He warbled bird calls, ordered the Atlanta newspapers' boxes removed from the Capitol grounds and rode a bicycle backwards in parades. In 1970, he walked off the Dick Cavett Show after author Truman Capote called Maddox's supporters "bigots."
The 1974 governor's race was in a sense a referendum on Maddox and his unique political style, and most Georgians had had enough. He led a large field in the Democratic primary but lost to state Sen. George Busbee in a runoff.
During the 1976 presidential campaign, Maddox trod the snowy paths of New Hampshire as the candidate of the American Independent Party. He futilely urged Democrats not to vote for Jimmy Carter.
"They assured me I'd be on the ballot in 45 states and they'd have $250,000 for the campaign. I got on the ballot in 19 states and left (the AIP convention in Chicago) with $3,000 I raised myself."
Maddox received 170,000 votes for president. Carter won and moved into the White House.
Failed ventures after office
Maddox was left with $300,000 in debt from his presidential campaign. He reopened the Pickrick Restaurant and a souvenir shop in Underground Atlanta. The old success returned briefly, then fizzled.
So Maddox took a brief stab at show business, a nightclub song and instrumental routine in which he teamed with Bobby Lee Fears, a former Pickrick kitchen worker. "The Governor and the Dishwasher," as the act was called, had a taste of the big time in New York and Miami, but it never caught on. Maddox turned to real estate, operating Lester Maddox Realty from his east Cobb County home later known to many for the billboard memorial erected to his wife, who died in 1997. At one point, creditors seized all but one dollar of his bank account.
"None of this would have happened if I hadn't been elected to public office," he said later. "But I'm not sorry. If I had it to do over, I'd do it all again."
A $250-a-plate barbecue in 1981 attended by more than 1,000 people raised enough money to retire the last of the Maddox's debt.
His later years were marked by ailing health. Maddox said he had been battling cancer in one form or another since 1953 when he was diagnosed with throat cancer after years of smoking cigars.
"Life has been great, and I'm living off precious memories now and what God has promised me for the future," Maddox said in an interview just before Christmas 2001. "I thank God for every breath and heartbeat."
Maddox is survived by four children, Lester G. Maddox, Jr., Linda Densmore, Virginia Carnes and Larry Maddox; 10 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
Published in Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Jun. 25, 2003.