About Lester Garfield Maddox, Sr.
Lester Garfield Maddox, Sr. (September 30, 1915 – June 25, 2003), was an American politician who was the 75th Governor of the U.S. state of Georgia from 1967 to 1971. A populist governor and Democrat, Maddox came to prominence as a staunch segregationist.
Maddox was the second of seven children born to Dean Garfield Maddox, a steelworker in Atlanta, and his wife, the former Flonnie Castleberry. Maddox left school shortly before graduation to help support the family by taking various jobs, including factory work. He received his high school diploma through correspondence courses.
In 1944, Maddox, along with his wife, the former Hattie Virginia Cox (1918–1997), used $400 in savings to open a combination grocery store and restaurant called Lester's Grill. Building on that success, the couple then bought property on Hemphill Avenue off the Georgia Tech campus to open up the Pickrick Restaurant.
Maddox made the Pickrick a family affair, with his wife and children working side-by-side with him. Known for its simple, inexpensive Southern cuisine, including its specialty, skillet-fried chicken, the Pickrick soon became a thriving business. The restaurant also provided Maddox with his first political forum. He placed advertising which featured cartoon chickens in the Atlanta newspapers. Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision of the United States Supreme Court, these restaurant ads began to feature the cartoon chickens commenting on the political questions of the day. However, Maddox's refusal to adjust to changes following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 manifested itself when he filed a lawsuit to continue his segregationist policies. Maddox said that he would close his restaurant rather than serve African Americans. An initial group of black demonstrators came to the restaurant but did not enter when Maddox informed them that he had a large number of black employees. In April 1964, more African Americans attempted to enter the restaurant. Maddox confronted the group with a bare ax handle. Maddox provides the following account of the events:
Mostly customers, with only a few employees, voluntarily removed the twelve Pickrick Drumsticks (pick handles) from the nail kegs on each side of the large dining room fireplace. They had been forewarned by the arrival of Atlanta's news media of an impending attempted invasion of our restaurant by the racial demonstrators and once the demonstrators and agitators arrived, the customers and employees pulled the drumsticks from the kegs and went outside to defend against the threatened invasion.
Maddox became a martyr to segregationist advocates by leasing and then selling the restaurant to employees rather than agreeing to serve black customers. He claimed that the issue was not hostility to blacks but constitutional property rights. He even built a monument to "private property rights" near the restaurant.
The Civil Rights Digital Library at the University of Georgia contains the following account of the closing of his restaurant:
Maddox closed the Pickrick on August 13, and reopened the business on September 26 as the Lester Maddox Cafeteria, where he pledged to serve only "acceptable" Georgians. During a trial for contempt of court on September 29, Maddox argued against the charges because he was no longer offering service to out-of-state travelers or integrationists. On February 5, 1965 a federal court ruled that Maddox was in contempt of court for failing to obey the injunction and assigned fines of two hundred dollars a day for failing to serve African Americans. Maddox ultimately closed his restaurant on February 7, 1965 rather than integrate it; he claimed that President Lyndon Johnson and communists put him out of business.
The building was purchased by Georgia Tech in 1965 and was used for many years as the placement center and was later known as the Ajax building. It was demolished on May 14 and 15, 2009.
During his ownership of the Pickrick, Maddox, a Democrat, failed in two bids for mayor of Atlanta. In 1957, he lost to incumbent William B. Hartsfield, for whom the large airport is named. Hartsfield had pursued a more moderate approach to racial matters. In 1961, Maddox lost to Ivan Allen, Jr., with whom he split the white vote. Allen's ability to garner virtually all of the black vote provided his margin of victory.
In 1962, Maddox ran for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia against Peter Zack Geer, a candidate with whom he shared segregationist and states' rights views. In an effort to differentiate from each other, each attempted to paint the other as an extremist. Geer won the race, 55–45 percent, but Maddox gained valuable recognition across the state.
In the following years, Maddox proclaimed himself a "Society of Liberty" martyr intent on opposing an awesome central government which thwarted states' rights and gave special protection to minority groups. He was recognized by his rimless eyeglasses, dome-shaped forehead, bald head, and nervous energy. An unidentified Republican viewed Maddox's appeal as follows: "We have a populist revolution in its truest sense moving here. White people who work with their hands see in Lester Maddox a man of their own kind and are fighting to elect him [as governor]." Time magazine termed Maddox a "strident racist"; Newsweek viewed him as a "backwoods demagogue out in the boondocks." Yet, the former restaurateur's appeal transcended race to embrace a right-wing brand of "populism", picturing government, rather than big business, as the villain.
When Maddox sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966, his principal primary opponent was former Governor Ellis Arnall. That election was still in the era of Democratic Party dominance in Georgia, when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to election. There was no Republican primary at the time, but there were a great many voters who identified with the GOP. Therefore, an undetermined number of Republicans cast ballots in the open Democratic primary election and chose the candidate who they believed would most likely lose the general election to their nominee, Howard "Bo" Callaway. In the primary, Arnall won a plurality of the popular vote, but he was denied the required majority. Maddox, the second-place candidate, entered the runoff election against Arnall. State Senator Jimmy Carter, later the U.S. President, finished in a strong third place. Again, some Republicans voted in the Democratic primary runoff. Arnall barely campaigned in the runoff, and Maddox emerged victorious, 443,055 to 373,004.
Maddox quipped that he had been nominated despite having "no money, no politicians, no television, no newspapers, no Martin Luther King, no Lyndon Johnson, and we made it!" He joked further that President Johnson had been "the best campaign manager I've got even if he did put me out of business," a reference to the closing of the Pickrick Restaurant to avoid desegregation. On winning the runoff, the Baptist Maddox, who neither smoked nor drank alcohol, decreed God as his "campaign manager".
Stunned Arnall supporters announced a write-in candidacy for the general election, insisting that Georgians must have the option of a moderate Democrat besides the conservatives Maddox and Callaway. In his general election campaign, Maddox equated the Callaway Republicans to the American Civil War and the 1864 March to the Sea waged in Georgia by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman. He criticized the Callaway family textile mill, which he alleged had kept wages at $10 a week in Troup County. Maddox said that Callaway was unable to relate to farmers, small businessmen, and the unemployed ... He would be a lot better off if he knew about people as well as dollars." Maddox said that Callaway Gardens had hired off-duty police officers to maintain segregation at the tourist park in Pine Mountain, but a superior court judge verified that Callaway had an open admission policy at the facility.
The first Republican member of the United States House of Representatives elected from Georgia since the close of Reconstruction, Callaway won a plurality in the general election, and Maddox finished second, but more than 52,000 wrote in Arnall's name. (Some liberals disenchanted with both major nominees took the catchy slogan "Go Bo" of Callaway's campaign (referring to Howard "Bo" Callaway) and expanded it to "Go Bo, and take Lester with you".)
Under the election rules then in effect, the state legislature was required to elect one of the two candidates with the highest number of votes, which meant that the lawmakers could not consider Arnall. With the legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, all of whom had been required to sign a Democratic loyalty oath, Maddox became governor.
Governor of Georgia
Maddox campaigned hard for states' rights and maintained a segregationist stance while in office. Upon the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., he denied the slain civil rights leader the honor of lying in state in the Georgia state capitol after being told by undercover agents in the Atlanta Police Department that there was a planned storming of the state capitol by participants in the crowd of mourners. As a precaution, Maddox stationed 160 state troopers to surround the capitol. In 1968, Maddox endorsed George Wallace, the then pro-segregation American Independent Party candidate in the 1968 presidential election.
Maddox's often self-deprecating humor and off-the-cuff manner stood in contrast to the fiery rhetoric of other Southern politicians such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond. When he was asked what might be done to improve the abysmal conditions in Georgia prisons, Maddox replied that what was really needed was a better class of prisoner. Maddox's chief of staff was Zell Miller, who went on to serve two terms as governor in the 1990s and as Paul Coverdell's successor in the U.S. Senate.
Maddox received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Bob Jones University in 1969.
In 1968, a small Atlanta repertory company produced a play entitled Red, White and Maddox. The play ridiculed Maddox and imagined him winning the 1972 U.S. presidential election, then starting a war with the Soviet Union. The show came to Broadway and ran for forty-one performances at the Cort Theatre before closing.
Accomplishments in office
In the 1966 campaign, the Savannah Morning News forecast that a Governor Maddox would "tell off the federal government forty times a day, but four years after his inauguration, he would have accomplished little else."
Once in office, however, Maddox accomplished the following:
Salary increases (in dollars) during four years as governor were more than for the two previous administrations of Ernest Vandiver and Carl Sanders combined.
Percentage of salary increase for elementary and secondary teachers was a record breaker unmatched for another seventeen years.
In higher education, the State Board of Regents received the highest budget increase of the latter half of the 20th century. This was probably the largest percentage increase for higher education of any state during the four fiscal years of the Maddox-approved state budget appropriations.
Dollars gained for new and expanded industry equaled far surpassed the period from 1947 through 1966.
According to a letter written by Maddox in 1999, Maddox "left the Office of Governor with a favorable poll rating of above 84 percent and won the Office of Lieutenant Governor in a landslide vote of more than 73 percent, which remains the greatest percentage of votes for any governor or lieutenant governor against a Republican opponent in a Georgia general election".
Maddox was favorably influenced by Murray M. Silver, Esq., General Counsel of the Georgia Department of Labor, and Commissioner Sam Caldwell to hire blacks and to approve legislation affecting unemployment insurance of automobile workers within the state.
He integrated the lines of farmer's markets throughout the state.
Years after Maddox's gubernatorial term ended, Republican Benjamin B. Blackburn described Maddox as a "far better governor than his critics will ever admit." Then a former U.S. representative, Blackburn noted that no claim of corruption arose against Maddox, whose administration was characterized by economic development and the appointment of African Americans to state executive positions.
Lieutenant Governor of Georgia
Under the Georgia constitution of 1945, Maddox was prohibited from running for a second consecutive term. He therefore waged his second bid for lieutenant governor, the first having resulted in defeat to Peter Zack Geer in 1962. Although Maddox was elected as a Democratic candidate at the same time as Jimmy Carter's election as governor, the two were not running mates; in Georgia, particularly in that era of Democratic dominance, the winners of the primary elections went on to easy victories in the general elections without campaigning together as an official ticket or as running mates. Carter and Maddox found little common ground during their four years of service, often publicly feuding with each other.
Shortly after that election, Maddox appeared as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show on December 18, 1970. During a commercial break, fellow guest and former football player Jim Brown asked Maddox if he had "any trouble with the white bigots because of all the things you did for blacks." On the air, Cavett substituted the word "admirers" in place of "bigots", enraging Maddox. After demanding an apology from Cavett and not getting it, Maddox walked off the show.
Maddox ran again for governor in 1974 but lost in the Democratic primary to George Busbee. Maddox called the campaign against Busbee "the worst thing I have ever been involved in." Busbee then handily defeated Republican Ronnie Thompson, the former mayor of Macon, who had hoped to have faced Maddox in the fall campaign. Thompson called Maddox "a counterfeit conservative" and challenged the outgoing lieutenant governor to a debate. Maddox's former chief of staff Zell Miller was successful in his own bid to succeed Maddox as lieutenant governor.
1976 Presidential election
When Carter ran for President in 1976, Maddox ran against him as the nominee of Wallace's former American Independent Party, saying that his former rival was "the most dishonest man I ever met." The remark was similar to a statement once uttered by Barry Goldwater about U.S. President Richard M. Nixon. Maddox and running mate William Dyke, the former mayor of Madison, Wisconsin, received 170,274 votes in the election, less than 1 percent of the vote.
With his political career seemingly over and with massive debts stemming from his 1974 gubernatorial bid, Maddox began a short-lived nightclub comedy career in 1977 with an African American, Bobby Lee Sears, who had worked as a busboy in his restaurant. Sears had served time in prison for a drug offense before Maddox, as lieutenant governor, was able to assist him in obtaining a pardon. Calling themselves "The Governor and the Dishwasher," the duo performed comedy bits built around musical numbers with Maddox on harmonica and Sears on guitar.
On September 25, 1977, Maddox suffered a heart attack but recovered and attended a number of appreciation dinners from Georgia Democrats that reduced his debts. In an attempt to raise further money, Maddox auctioned off memorabilia the following year from his days as a restaurateur and a politician. Included in this collection were autographed ax handles. The auction brought only $1,392, but Maddox refused to declare bankruptcy, saying, "I'd rather die."
Maddox began a real estate company, but never again experienced the financial success he had enjoyed with the Pickrick. When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1983, Maddox traveled to the Bahamas for experimental treatment. Two years later, the facility where he received his treatment was closed because of fears of contamination by HIV. He never contracted AIDS and made a successful recovery from his cancer.
1983 Congressional election
After Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down in 1983, with U.S. Representative Larry McDonald aboard, a special election was held to fill his seat in Congress. Lester Maddox stated his intention to run for the seat if McDonald's wife, Kathy McDonald, did not. But Kathy McDonald decided to run, and Maddox stayed out of the race; however, she lost to Democrat George "Buddy" Darden.
Maddox made one final unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990, then underwent heart surgery the following year. He remained a visible figure in his home community of Cobb County for the remainder of his life. In 1992 and 1996, Maddox crossed party lines and endorsed unsuccessful populist Republican Patrick J. Buchanan for the presidency. His last public speech was in Atlanta in 2001 at the annual national conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens. The CCC, of which Maddox was a charter member, is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League to be a white supremacist group.
On June 25, 2003, after a fall while recuperating from intestinal surgery in an Atlanta hospice, Maddox died of complications from pneumonia and prostate cancer. His wife, Virginia, who had nursed him through five life-threatening illnesses, died in 1997. The couple had four children: daughter and son in-law Linda (1938–2011) and Don Densmore; daughter and son in-law Virginia "Ginny" and George Carnes; son and daughter-in-law Lester Maddox, Jr., and Jean Maddox, and son and daughter-in-law, Larry and Anna Maddox. Lester and Virginia Maddox are interred at Arlington Memorial Park in Sandy Springs in northern Fulton County, Georgia.
After Maddox's death in 2003, Tom Murphy, the former Speaker of the Georgia House of Representatives, said of the former governor: "He had a reputation as a segregationist, but he told us he was not a segregationist, but that you should be able to associate with whoever you wanted. He went on to do more for African Americans than any governor of Georgia up until that time."
The Interstate Highway 75 bridge over the Chattahoochee River at the southeastern boundary of Cobb County, is named the Lester and Virginia Maddox Bridge.
Maddox's name also appears in the opening lines of Randy Newman's song "Rednecks", in allusion to his appearance on The Dick Cavett Show:
“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
Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
And if they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song”
According to an interviewer from the alternative newspaper Creative Loafing, "What offends [Maddox] most is Newman's crude reference to the Jewish man." It should be noted, however, that Newman's lines are from the point of view of an unreliable narrator: specifically, a self-proclaimed "redneck" who assumes, incorrectly, that Cavett is Jewish.