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Lester Maddox, Segregationist and Georgia Governor, Dies at 87

June 26, 2003

Lester Maddox, Segregationist and Georgia Governor, Dies at 87

By RICHARD SEVERO

Lester Maddox, the Atlanta restaurant owner and archsegregationist who adopted the pick handle as his symbol of defiance in a successful bid for the Georgia governorship in 1966, died on Wednesday in Atlanta. He was 87.

Mr. Maddox first came to national attention in 1964, after he violated the newly signed federal Civil Rights Act by refusing to serve three black Georgia Tech students at his Pickrick Restaurant. The Pickrick was noted for the quality of its fried chicken and for its reasonable prices, but Mr. Maddox was determined that no black should experience the ambience that he had reserved exclusively for whites.

When the three black men tried to buy some of his chicken in July 1964, Mr. Maddox waved a pistol at them and said: "You no good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!"

Some of his customers were sympathetic to his cause and interrupted their meal to take pick handles that Mr. Maddox had put by the door (and sold for $2 apiece) to make it clear that the blacks would not be served. The pick handles, which Mr. Maddox also sold in his souvenir shop, were called "Pickrick drumsticks" and came to symbolize his resistance to the civil rights movement. On occasion, Mr. Maddox would autograph the handles.

The next month he picketed the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where, he believed, most of the promoters of civil rights legislation could be found. He vowed he would never serve blacks in his restaurant, and so he sold it. The two former employees who bought it reopened it on a desegregated basis, but not before Mr. Maddox erected a monument in front of the building to mourn the "death of private property rights in America."

Slight of stature, Mr. Maddox was direct and outspoken in the defense of his convictions, which he wrapped in a states' rights banner. These included the view that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, that integration was a Communist plot, that segregation was somewhere justified in Scripture and that a federal mandate to integrate schools was "ungodly, un-Christian and un-American."

His opinions were no less fixed on other issues. He was opposed to drinking, smoking, liberal clergymen, atheism, socialism, the press, civil rights workers, "do-gooder foundations" and the wearing of miniskirts in the state Capitol. He advocated short haircuts for men, the Baptist Church (at least, its more conservative members), the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the singing of "God Bless America," a tune for which apparently he had an insatiable appetite. He liked it so much that at one public event, he ordered that it be sung no fewer than three times, and people in the crowd could see tears in his eyes.

In 1965, he announced that he would run in the 1966 Democratic primary for governor of Georgia. He said he was confident that Georgians would support "an old country boy." His confidence was immediately rewarded with the support of the Ku Klux Klan.

When nobody got a majority of the primary vote, there was a runoff, and in an upset Mr. Maddox defeated former Gov. Ellis Arnall, a political moderate. Mr. Maddox, who had never before held elected office, explained that God had been his campaign manager. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said the results of the vote made him "ashamed to be a Georgian."

Mr. Maddox's Republican opponent in the general election was Bo Callaway, who shared many of his views on the need to separate the races. A write-in vote for Mr. Arnall resulted in neither Mr. Maddox nor Mr. Callaway gaining a majority. The General Assembly of Georgia, its legislature, then chose the governor, giving Mr. Maddox the job by a vote of 182 to 66.

Mr. Maddox explained his segregationist views to The New York Times in November that year, saying his position stemmed from "a love for my people, because I believe it to be Christian and . . . American." He surprised many by hiring and promoting blacks in state government and by initiating an early release program for the state prison system.

In 1970, after serving four years as governor, Mr. Maddox was elected lieutenant governor because state law precluded him from succeeding himself. The governor he served under was Jimmy Carter, one of his political enemies. After Mr. Maddox left the statehouse, he remained active in politics. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1974 and for president in 1976, the candidate of the American Independent Party.

In subsequent years, he indicated more than once that he would again like to be governor, but the state had changed in ways that he had not, and his political fortunes fell. Despite cancer and a bad heart, he continued to aspire to high office, but when he ran for governor in 1990, he finished last in the Democratic primary. Ever the optimist, when he was asked how he was doing, he replied, "Ain't no one doing better unless they're younger."

His wife, Virginia, died in 1997, after 61 years of marriage. Mr. Maddox is survived by 2 daughters, Linda and Virginia Louise; 2 sons, Lester Jr. and Larry; 10 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Maddox continued to be a lightning rod for political debate even on the day he died. Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered flags on state buildings lowered to half-staff yesterday for Mr. Maddox but was criticized by some lawmakers for not doing so after the death of Maynard Jackson, Atlanta's first black mayor, who died on Monday.

Flags at the state Capitol will be lowered just one day, Saturday, for Mr. Jackson's funeral. Flags for Mr. Maddox will remain lowered until his funeral, the date of which had not been announced.

The governor's office said it was just following protocol.

Lester Garfield Maddox was born in Atlanta on Sept. 30, 1915, the second of seven children born to Dean Garfield Maddox and Flonnie Castleberry Maddox. The elder Maddox was a steelworker with the Atlantic Steel Company who never seemed to make enough money to feed and clothe his family. There were times when the family received its food from the Community Chest. Lester Maddox thus became a newsboy at age 12. He dropped out of school to help support the family but completed his high school education by taking correspondence courses. His various jobs included soda jerk in a drugstore, delivery boy and vendor of soft drinks and penny candy from a converted pigeon coop.

During World War II he worked at defense plants in the Atlanta area and by 1944 had saved $400 — enough to open a small restaurant and grocery store, Lester's Grill. He was successful enough that in 1947 he was able to buy a lot near the Georgia Institute of Technology and build a drive-in restaurant, the Pickrick.

Mr. Maddox left elective office more than 30 years ago but never ceased to be a political novelty — among the last of the Southern demagogues who spoke his mind and knew how to put on a show, sometimes riding a bicycle backward around the state Capitol.

After selling the restaurant, he had a brief career in show business as half of an interracial musical-comedy act called "The Governor and His Dishwasher."

He sold souvenir pick handles for a while and later had to sell off his personal belongings at a bankruptcy auction.

In 1998, 24 years after he left office, his polarizing politics largely dormant, the state finally found a modest opportunity to etch his name in stone: an Interstate highway bridge across the Chattahoochee River was named the Lester and Virginia Maddox Bridge. But without his wife's name, Mr. Maddox observed, his name would not have been on the bridge at all.

In an interview with The Associated Press in December 2001, Mr. Maddox said: "People know me, they know I'm Lester Maddox. That I beat the Republicans and the Democrats. I beat the statehouse, city hall, the courthouse, the White House, the railroads, the banks — and I was free. No governor has ever gone over there with that freedom in your lifetime or mine."

But on race and states' rights, he remained adamant.

"I want my race preserved," he said, "and I hope most everybody else wants theirs preserved. I think forced segregation is illegal and wrong. I think forced racial integration is illegal and wrong. I believe both of them to be unconstitutional."


Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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