Jimmy Carter may be the only Georgian elected president of the United States, but there are a slew of Peach State residents who’ve aspired to that office. Perhaps the most charismatic and controversial is Lester Maddox who 39 years ago today was nominated by the American Independent Party as its candidate. Perhaps more ironic than coincidental, Maddox ran against Carter after he served as Carter’s lieutenant governor from 1971 to 1975.
Born into an Atlanta working-class family, hard work and determination lead him to own a successful eatery called the Pickrick Cafeteria near the Georgia Tech campus. Through political commentary disguised as advertising for the restaurant, Maddox emerged as a public figure in the early 1950s.
Looking to put action behind his words, he ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta against William B. Hartsfield in 1957 and four years later against Ivan Allen Jr.
In 1962 he ran for lieutenant governor of the state with a platform of segregationist views only to be outdone by another segregationist, Peter Zack Greer.
By the time of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Maddox was one of few business owners who still hadn’t desegregated. His café became a target for civil rights activists. On July 3, 1964, he and a group of like-minded individuals wielded axe handles and forcibly turned away three black people seeking to integrate the business.
A photograph made front-page news nationwide and Maddox became a symbol of violent racism.
Capitalizing on the publicity and the sentiment of many whites in the state, he ran for governor of Georgia in 1966 defeating the liberal former governor Ellis Arnall in the Democratic primary.
So it was Maddox against Howard H. Callaway, who shared many views on the need to separate the races. A write-in vote for Arnall gave neither man a majority, but the General Assembly gave Maddox the governor’s job by a vote of 182 to 66.
Maddox never shed his beliefs in racial separation, anti-communism and moral absolutes. He banned miniskirts in the Capitol and insisted men on his staff keep their hair cut above their ears.
He seemed to delight in his constant battles with the media. His official portrait, which hangs at the Capitol, features a likeness of his wife, two peaches and a copy of The Atlanta Constitution wrapped around a fish.
Although he was called a racist, Maddox’s term was free of political corruption, and some critics found in him a genuine caring for people and their problems.
Four black escapees from a South Georgia work camp paid a surprise visit to Maddox at the Governor’s Mansion. Maddox listened to their complaints, then ordered an investigation of the state’s prisons.
He got teachers a 25 percent pay raise and took on corruption in South Georgia’s Long County, ordering billboards erected that warned drivers of speed traps, including the infamous one at Ludowici.
Maddox named 38 black people to county draft boards when only two had been appointed before. He appointed the first black member to the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the first black state trooper. But he put few if any African-Americans in positions of great prominence or power.
He was a footnote in the sweeping story of the civil rights movement in the South, Merle Black, an Emory University political scientist who specializes in Southern politics, told the AJC when Maddox died.
“He was eclipsed by George Wallace in the 1960s and by Jimmy Carter in the ’70s, ” Black said. “In terms of importance, he was limited to his impact in Georgia.”
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