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Lester Maddox, 87; Georgia Governor Opposed Integration

June 26, 2003|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Lester Maddox, the flamboyant and controversial restaurant owner who in the 1960s parlayed a staunch segregationist stance into the governorship of Georgia, died Wednesday in Atlanta. He was 87.

Maddox had been battling a number of ailments, including cancer, complications from a stroke and heart attacks. He recently broke two ribs in a fall and contracted pneumonia. He had been under hospice care for a few weeks.

He first came to national attention in 1964 on the eve of a new era in America with the passing of federal laws that barred racial discrimination. But Maddox was firmly opposed to the laws, and when friends wielding ax handles drove black protesters from his Pickrick fried chicken restaurant in Atlanta, he made headlines across the country.

Maddox, for his part, waved a handgun at the protesters, calling them "no-good dirty communists." He closed the establishment months later rather than accept a court ruling ordering him to desegregate.

Although he had run two unsuccessful races for mayor of Atlanta and one for Georgia's lieutenant governor, Maddox turned his eye to the race for the statehouse in 1966. Running a glad-handing campaign that attracted large support in rural Georgia, Maddox won the Democratic nomination for governor.

In the general election, the margin between Maddox and his Republican opponent was so small that write-in votes for a third candidate prevented either from getting a majority. The decision was left to the predominantly Democratic Legislature, which gave the governorship to Maddox by a wide margin.

As governor, Maddox was perhaps remembered more for his offbeat antics than for any government policies. He was photographed riding a bicycle backward and riding on the hood of a car to open a new stretch of highway.

He walked off TV talk shows in disgust when fellow guests protested his social views. He instituted "little people day" every week, when he sat in the governor's office and listened to everyday folks complain about problems great and small. In one of those sessions, he chatted with four black convicts who had escaped expressly to find Maddox and complain about conditions in state prison. He established a panel to investigate their concerns.

Those who had feared further racial divisiveness when Maddox took office were somewhat surprised when he appointed more blacks to state government posts than any previous governor. He also worked for legal reform and helped gain pay increases for teachers and university professors. Even critics praised his honesty.

Merle Black, a Southern politics expert at Emory University in Atlanta, noted that one of Maddox's strengths was "his genuine concern for low-income people." And in Georgia, many low-income people happened to be blacks.

Maddox's interest in the poor came naturally. He grew up in the slums of the Georgia capital where he was born, one of seven children of a devout Baptist mother and a hard-drinking machinist father.

Maddox sold newspapers, candy and soft drinks on the sidewalks as a youngster and dropped out of the 11th grade during the Depression in 1933 because he simply "didn't like school." He later took courses in accounting and engineering and completed his high school education by correspondence.

But Maddox did well in business and managed to profit from small real estate deals in the next decade. His most successful business endeavor was the Pickrick, which he opened in the late 1940s.

With a large newspaper advertising campaign for the restaurant, in which he also criticized the federal government's negative impact on state and individual rights, the eatery became one of the most popular restaurants in the region. Its success was also the result of good food and moderate prices.

After closing the restaurant in the face of legal pressures, he opened a souvenir stand in front of the restaurant and sold several thousand dollars worth of souvenir ax handles to mark his bid to drive out black protesters. He later opened a furniture store, which he also called Pickrick.

None of this hurt his gubernatorial bid.

Maddox became something of a caricature during his time in the statehouse and afterward. He was the frequent target of political cartoonists, op-ed page columnists and social critics, including the songwriter Randy Newman, who used an incident when Maddox appeared on the Dick Cavett talk show as a focal point for the satirical song "Rednecks" on the 1974 album "Good Old Boys."

After a failed race for president in 1976, Maddox briefly turned to stand-up comedy, teaming up with a black man he had pardoned from jail while serving as governor. The duo called themselves "the Governor and the Dishwasher," and quickly disappeared from the scene.

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