Lester Maddox

Racist restaurateur who became Governor of Georgia
Click to follow

Lester Garfield Maddox, restaurateur and politician: born Atlanta, Georgia 30 September 1915; Governor of Georgia 1967-71, Lieutenant Governor 1971-75; married 1936 Virginia Cox (died 1997; two sons, two daughters); died Atlanta 25 June 2003.

Southern racists used to come in many shades, but Lester Maddox was a particularly exotic example of the species. He rose from humble origins to become Governor of Georgia, honing along the way a populist style that made him one of America's most quotable politicians, and a veritable folk hero for his fans. By the end, even his racist views had softened, as he, like other diehards, realised that integration was inevitable and irreversible.

Lester Garfield Maddox was born and raised in a working-class area of Atlanta. He never had a formal education, assuring those who raised the matter, "I hold a degree in hard work, and a masters in self-reliance." That self-reliance was in evidence as he set up his first business, a restaurant called Pickrick that would later catapult him to national notoriety.

Pickrick, which opened in 1947, was promoted by Maddox in regular weekly advertisements in a local paper. Whether or not these boosted business is unclear - but they left no doubt of its proprietor's views on the burning political question of the age. The future Governor always insisted he was not racist, merely opposed to integration. But as one ad thundered,

Just in case some of you Communists, Socialists and other Integrationists have any doubt, The Pickrick will never be Integrated. If you want some fried chicken, it will have to be something other than Pickrick chicken.

He was as good as his word. In one incident, customers drove blacks away from the restaurant with picks. Finally, Maddox was ordered in 1964 to integrate Pickrick in accordance with federal civil-rights laws. He refused, and closed the restaurant rather than submit. In the Georgia of the day, such defiance was a platform for a political career, and two years later Maddox ran for Governor.

He would win, but only after a battle that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. In the general election, Maddox - who was backed by the Ku Klux Klan - received fewer votes than his Republican opponent Howard Callaway. But, with other candidates in the race, Callaway fell short of an outright majority, and the high court eventually ordered the Governor to be chosen by the Democrat- dominated state legislature. Immediately after being elected, Maddox rushed to the Governor's office to take the oath of office before yet more legal challenges could be filed.

His four years in office only added to his fame. By 1968, Newsweek was calling him "America's leading political anti-hero". In April that year Maddox enraged blacks by refusing to close the Capitol building in Atlanta as a mark of respect for the funeral of Martin Luther King. That autumn, he supported the third-party presidential bid of George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama.

Almost in spite of himself, however, Maddox took measures which helped the black community. "Lester always tried to help the little folks," Everett Wiltner, a political opponent, would later admit, "and if you do things for the poor folks, it involves blacks."

In the single four-year term he was allowed, Maddox raised salaries for teachers, and boosted spending on welfare and mental-health programmes. He tried, with some success, to reform Georgia's notoriously harsh prison system. "Go and listen to the people," he once shouted at Democratic legislators, For all his conservatism, Maddox was more ready to spend public money than the average representative of his party.

Not surprisingly, he became highly popular. After he had failed to force through a change in the Georgia constitution that would have allowed him to run again, Maddox was elected Lieutenant Governor, No 2 to a certain Jimmy Carter. There was no love lost between the accomplished and liberal future President and his rough-mannered deputy. "It's all right for a fellow to grow peanuts . . . but people ought not to think like them," Maddox remarked. "I don't know whether the man is sick, or just a plain fool."

The Carter governorship effectively ended Maddox's political career. But by then he had become a listed living Georgia monument, famous for his aphorisms and such greetings as "It's great to be alive, a lot of people aren't".

After his wife of 60 years died in 1997, Maddox threw himself into a last campaign, to sell the virtues of enduring marriage. He chose the pages of the Atlanta Journal- Constitution and the trusted vehicle of the small ad to get his message across: "DEAR MOMS AND DADS," it read. "Help save Lives, Families and USA. STAY MARRIED."

Rupert Cornwell