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Lester!
The strange but true tale of Georgia's unlikeliest governor

by Hal Jacobs

 

Read Gov. Maddox's strong rebuttal of this article ("cruel, biased, untrue") in his 6-page, single-spaced letter to the author.

 

"Why would Jimmy do such a thing?" says Lester Maddox.

The 83-year-old former governor of Georgia is squatting in front of the TV in his den, balancing on his knees like a baseball catcher behind home plate. Jimmy, of course, is former President Jimmy Carter.

Maddox watches a 1997 videotape of Pat Robertson's "The 700 Club" in which Carter, between a smile and a grimace, confesses that God has abandoned him twice during his life. Once following his father's death, once after he lost Georgia's 1966 Democratic gubernatorial primary.

"The guy that beat me," Carter explains, "was Lester Maddox, a racist who won the race because he would stand in front of his restaurant with a pick handle and anybody who came up that was black, he would beat him over the head with it."

Maddox shakes his head. In a quiet voice, his eyes still focused on the TV, he says, "Nobody ever got hit with a pick handle at my restaurant."

"Nobody ever swung anything," he says. Not him, not his friends, not his 20 white employees, not his 40 black employees. A racist? "Would a racist hire 40 African-Americans?" he asks. Would a racist appoint more blacks to state government during his term in office than any Georgia governor before him?

Would a racist, asks Bob Short, Maddox's former press secretary, join up with a black musician and play nightclubs for 20 months under the headline of "The Governor and the Dishwasher"?

"There are two Lester Maddoxes," says the former governor, who often refers to himself in the third person. "One created by God -- one created by the media." If he believed all the cruel things said about him over the years, he wouldn't have voted for himself either.

So why would Jimmy Carter, after all he's been through -- globetrotting for peace and human rights, all that nasty business with the 62 American hostages in Iran -- still be bothered by a little guy named Lester Maddox?

Maddox is slightly bewildered and more than a little tickled. He's always enjoyed his role as political outsider, the thorn in the side, the mouse who stampedes elephants. Maddox has been a burr under the saddles of many Georgians, black and white, ever since he ran for mayor of Atlanta in 1957 and lost, then ran again and lost, then ran for lieutenant governor and lost, then ran for governor in 1966, and -- to the surprise of everyone but God and Lester Garfield Maddox -- won.

I recently spent an afternoon with Maddox at his home in Marietta. I was curious to see if the "ardent segregationist" of the 1960s had mellowed with age. Or if he had become more acidic. Or, perhaps, politically correct like conservative politicians Rep. Bob Barr and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who got into hot media water recently by hanging out with the pro-white Council of Conservative Citizens, later saying they had no idea who they were sitting down to chicken dinner with.

Over the telephone, Maddox sounds frail but sharp.

"I'm alive, thank God," he says. "I've got a bad aorta valve, cancer in my ear, a bad colon, two cancer operations, and I lost my precious wife." His voice cracks at the mention of Virginia Maddox, who died 21 months ago.

Maddox has lived on Johnson Ferry Road since 1978. The farm and pastures across the street are gone, replaced by a strip center parking lot anchored by Blockbuster video. From the Blockbuster entrance, customers renting Something About Mary look across the busy four-lane to the governor's lawn and porch. The only clues that inside the plain, brick suburban ranch house lives one of Georgia's most colorful politicians are flagpoles bearing the U.S. and Georgia colors -- and a hand-painted sign along the driveway.

The first half of the sign reads: "Thanks be to God he has given me my precious Virginia for 61 years as of May 9, '97." And below, in more flowing letters: "and God took her from me and carried her home 45 days later."

The first part was a "welcome home" surprise for Virginia on the day she was brought back from the hospital. Maddox added the postcript shortly after her death.

The sign has a Howard Finster quality about it, as do other Maddox "art installations" over the years, including his mock grave to the "World's Greatest Health Care" and a three-story, white frame tower ("monument to the death of free enterprise") he once built on the parking lot of his restaurant. Like the Summerville, Ga., folk artist, Maddox has never held back from pouring out his heart and need for salvation in public. They both also have strikingly similar backgrounds: born in 1915, fashioned careers as "outsiders" and dedicated their lives to a code of God, country and hard work.

Maddox greets me at the side door of the attached garage. Thanks to a macrobiotic diet and a passion for carrot juice, he looks trim. He's dressed somewhat formally in a white dress shirt with cufflinks, a tie and dark slacks. He's instantly recognizable by the trademark black-rimmed glasses, the bald dome and the ears -- called "jug ears" in less sensitive times -- which have always lent him a disarming, Snow-White-elf appearance.

The combination of those distinctive features and a cocky grin makes for one of the most recognizable icons in Georgia history. Maddox was God's gift to editorial cartoonists - as well as to himself. He still wears one of the 17-jewel signature Lester wristwatchs -- "a quality watch, not like that trash Wallace sold" - that he sold at the souvenir shop he ran during the '70s in Underground Atlanta. On the dial is a caricature of Lester riding backwards on a bicycle. The letters in his name spell out the hours. The hour hand is a chicken drumstick, a pick handle tells the minutes.

The pick handle. It takes a peculiar sense of irony to laugh at the pick handle, which became, thanks to Maddox, an internationally known symbol of brute force on the side of white segregationists. At first, the handle was a decoration near the fireplace at the Pickrick restaurant, which Maddox built in 1947 alongside Northside Drive and Georgia Tech in the steel-mill neighborhood where he was raised. At the Pickrick, customer could "pick" their food and Maddox's employees would "rick," or pile, it up. Good food at rock-bottom prices attracted a large working-class following. So did Maddox's quirky, homespun advertisements in the Atlanta newspapers, which always began with "Pickrick says ... ." Over 17 years and many 16-hour work days in which Virginia Maddox and the four children pulled their share of the load, the restaurant evolved into a cafeteria big enough to seat 400 diners - 400 white diners, that is.

When African-Americans tried to integrate the restaurant in April 1964, after an unsuccessful attempt the year before, Lester "Pickrick" Maddox put the pick handles -- and a high-pressure water hose -- to another use. No, he and his employees never assaulted anyone, but on July 3, 1964, Maddox did swing a handle and bash the car roof of a black minister. He also waved a pistol and was hauled into court on gun charges, but was later acquitted by an all-white jury.

By not serving blacks in his restaurant, Maddox says he was merely exercising one of the rights of private ownership guaranteed all Americans by the Constitution. When he closed the restaurant rather than integrate under a federal injunction, he said that "my President, my Congress and the Communists have closed my business and ended a childhood dream."

It was never solely about race, Maddox says; it was about free enterprise. But because he had injected ugly race talk into his earlier political campaigns for mayor, his racial views now colored everything. Instead of the media covering the story about the little guy who defended his restaurant against the big, bad government, reporters covered the story of the little, white racist threatening black ministers and college students with ax handles.

To his blue-collar customers, who bought thousands of red handles known as "Pickrick drumsticks," Maddox became a folk hero. To the Atlanta business and social elite, he became the bumbling redneck who tarnished the reputation of "The City Too Busy To Hate." To the media, Maddox became the archetype of the Southern racist businessman, albeit a quick-witted one who was always available for a sound byte or a platter of delicious fried chicken, as he circulated through the restaurant, shaking hands and entertaining customers. State Rep. Billy McKinney of Atlanta remembers shaking Maddox's hand in 1964.

"He was selling his ax handles, and we went out to the place there, out to the Pickrick, and I fooled him. I grabbed his hand to shake it, and I wouldn't turn it loose. I had him. He had a little .22 or a little .25 or something -- one of those little, bitty guns -- and he tried to get his gun.

"But I held his hand. And I told him, 'I got your goddamn hand.'"

Years later, the pick handle resurfaced when Rev. Hosea Williams, former state representative and assistant to Martin Luther King Jr., introduced a bill to give the former governor a state pension. (By all accounts, Maddox left the governor's office more impoverished than any modern governor. He never parlayed his connections into high-paying consultant work or corporate board appointments.) On the day the bill was to be discussed, however, McKinney brought an axe handle to remind fellow legislators why Maddox didn't deserve a pension.

"Maddox was a segregationist and an obstruction to black progress," McKinney says, taking a break from this year's legislative session. "Had he prevailed, we'd still be segregated. And I don't want anybody to forget that."

The bill was defeated, much to the chagrin of Williams, who says he doesn't know of any other elected state official who spent eight years in office without drawing a dime of state pension. Williams has always seen a different side of Maddox.

"Lester Maddox did more for black people than any governor in the history of Georgia," Williams says. "He talked that racist talk, but the walk he walked was much different."

He lists Maddox's accomplishments. During his one term, which lasted from 1967 to 1971, Maddox appointed the first African-American to head a state department (the Board of Corrections). He also named the first black GBI agent, the first black state trooper and the first blacks to draft boards. He integrated the lines of farmer's markets throughout the state. He ordered state troopers to address African-Americans without using the "N" word. He expanded food stamp programs from 13 to 158 counties.

McKinney has one word for all that: "tokenism."

James Cook, professor of history at Floyd College in Rome, Ga., and author of The Governors of Georgia, sides with Williams.

"Maddox is a misunderstood, unique person," Cook said last month on the telephone. "He was not as anti-black as it was perceived. He genuinely believed in state's rights."

Cook doesn't believe Georgia has ever had a more unlikely governor. He writes that Maddox lacked legal training, a college education (Maddox dropped out after eleventh grade), political experience, family prominence, professional distinction, financial backing, military service, inhibitions and guile. And, if that's not enough, he adds that Maddox was "physically unimpressive."

So how did he become the first man to move into the new governor's mansion on West Paces Ferry Road?

Maddox says it was simply a "divine mission." Cook describes a weird chain of events in which the unthinkable happened.

After the closing of the Pickrick made Maddox a national symbol of defiance, he edged out progressive candidates Jimmy Carter and Ellis Arnall in the Democratic primary. Two weeks later, he pulled off a major upset in the runoff against the overconfident Arnall -- a highly regarded former governor. Some Democrats grumbled that thousands of Republicans crossed over in the runoff to vote for the weaker candidate, Maddox, because they figured he'd be easier to beat later on.

After the primary, Martin Luther King Jr. said he was "ashamed to be a Georgian." Republicans could already smell their victory over the backward-bicycle-riding yahoo who drove his stationwagon everywhere tacking up "Maddox Country" signs. They had a strong candidate in the person of conservative textile heir Bo Callaway. Democrats, running scared, mounted a huge write-in campaign for Arnall. It was a close race.

In the general election, Calloway edged Maddox by only 3,000 votes, but Georgia law required a majority, so the election was turned over to the heavily Democratic State House of Representatives, which decided in favor of Maddox.

Liberals predicted disaster. In Cook's words, they were "expecting severe persecution of blacks, race riots, bitter confrontations with the federal government and possibly the collapse of state government."

What they heard at the governor's inaugural address was far different. Maddox reassured everyone that his "administration will be one of compassion and concern."

Bob Short help draft the speech. "Lester Maddox was a riddle to liberals and educated people," he told me recently over lunch in Brookhaven. "They didn't understand him, so they didn't trust him."

By some strange twist of fate, Short, a former sports writer who always considered himself politically progressive, became Maddox's press secretary.

Short has written a biography of Maddox -- he describes it as a collection of anecdotes -- which will be published this fall by Mercer University Press. He says he wrote the book to offer students and scholars another side of Maddox, one that balances out "the ardent segregationist" they read about in most history books. The title of the book is Everything's Pickrick, which was a Maddox expression meaning everything was OK.

And Maddox's term might have been remembered as largely OK if not for one noteworthy event. Despite his political inexperience, Maddox achieved major reforms in the prison system and health care. Everyone agrees that he was a good judge of character; among those who got career boosts in his administration were future Gov. Zell Miller and future Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin, both of whom he appointed as executive secretaries, and future House Speaker Tom Murphy, who was his House floor leader.

But his undoing, what may have cost him a chance at being remembered as Georgia's true-blue populist governor, is the way he mishandled the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 9, 1968. Maddox, who considered King "an enemy of our country," refused to attend the ceremony or close state government for the day. He even considered personally raising the flags outside the Capitol that were at half-mast, but journalists say the presence of news cameras made him back away. As 200,000 mourners walked peacefully through downtown, Maddox holed up in the Capitol with 160 riot-helmeted state troopers, waiting for a blood bath that never happened.

Because Georgia's governors weren't allowed to succeed themselves in those days, Maddox ran for lieutenant governor in 1970 and won easily. With his support, Jimmy Carter was elected governor and, not long after, began planning a bid for the White House in '76.

In 1974, when Maddox was favored to win a return trip to the governor's mansion, he was swamped in a Democratic primary runoff by state Rep. George Busbee, the kind of business-oriented, moderate conservative who has since dominated Georgia politics. It was the last time Maddox was taken seriously as a candidate for elective office.

As we walk through his kitchen, Maddox explains that the house is just as his wife left it, but messy. Actually, the kitchen is spotless. Chickpeas and short-grain rice simmer on the stove. The rest of the den looks like a country boutique. Rugs, decanters, stuffed dolls, commemorative plates, rocking chairs and recliners. A Royal manual typewriter commands a cluttered dining table near a calendar photo of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. On a nearby counter are 1,100 pages of Maddox's FBI file -- the Feds won't let him have the other 200 pages. Formal family photographs of the Maddoxes crowd the wall behind the TV, then overflow onto the fireplace mantle at the far end. In front of the hearth is a formal oil painting of Virginia, dressed in a white evening gown. Next to Maddox's burgundy recliner is his "shrine to his wife": a matching recliner with three Bibles on its seat, one of them a gift from the 1975 Georgia Legislature. Small, framed photos of Virginia Maddox line the headrest.

He hands me the reading materials -- a press kit of sorts -- that he's put together for my visit. One stack, I can take home with me. It includes news clippings with his comments oftentimes typed in the margin, state Senate and House resolutions honoring him, and a letter he mailed to each of the 100 U.S. senators dated January 18, 1999. Halfway through the letter, Maddox asks: "Don't you sincerely believe that President Clinton is an amoral and/or mentally ill person?"

The other stack are originals that can't leave the room. "Nobody else has ever seen them," he says, adding that I am free to make notes from them or record them on a tape recorder. Later, I find many of the anecdotes, asides, digressions, medical reports and strange-but-true Maddox facts in a promotional pamphlet, "Prelude to One of a Kind," which he handed out in 1994 to drum up excitement for the autobiography he planned to write and still hopes to finish.

In the official Maddox version of his life, I see no mention of pick handles. In his den, there's no sign of them either. When asked by a photographer a few weeks later if he'd pose with a Pickrick drumstick, Maddox declines and says softly: "That wouldn't do any good."

Gov. Maddox reclines in the way-back position of his La-Z-Boy and studies the afternoon newspaper while I finish leafing through the press kit. The telephone rings frequently. He contributes to a few conservative causes, so he's always fending off more pleas for donations. With the help of friends, he retired his enormous political debts years ago. Now, he lives just above average financially, according to his daughter, Linda Sue Densmore. She and the doctors are mostly worried about his health, especially the ear cancer. Maddox stays in close touch with his children -- all four live only 20 to 40 minutes away. He also drives his Cadillac Brougham regularly to meet with old friends, attend church and eat an occasional dinner at a nearby Piccadilly Cafeteria, where his meals are occasionally interrupted by autograph seekers.

I ask if he's ever heard the 1974 Randy Newman song "Rednecks"? I read him the opening lines:

Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV show
With some smart-ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too.

Maddox shakes his head. "That's awful to write things like that just to sell something, isn't it?" What offends him most is Newman's crude reference to the Jewish man. Maddox says he occasionally attends synagogue with Jewish friends.

Does he still consider himself a segregationist? The answer is yes. He believes in the right to segregate one's business.

He proudly admits that he is an active member of the Council of Conservative Citizens -- the rightwing group that current politicians like Barr and Lott disavow when their links to the organization are exposed in the media. He opposes "the amalgamation of the races." He speaks out against the "New World Order."

No, he will not repent like George Wallace, who recanted at the end of his life and acknowledged that he did things for political gain. Maddox says he has no regrets, no need of repentance for anything he's done or said.

"I was Lester Maddox," he says. "How could I do anything different?"

from Creative Loafing, March 20, 1999

 

For more information on this site, please contact hal@southerncurrents.com.
 

 
 
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