- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Lester Maddox, a former governor of Georgia who staunchly opposed racial integration in the 1960s, died yesterday in Atlanta. He was 87.

Mr. Maddox had survived a previous battle with cancer and had suffered other health problems for years. He died in an hospice after developing pneumonia, family members said.

A high school dropout who earned his fortune as an Atlanta restaurateur, Mr. Maddox became a national figure for his outspoken defense of segregation. He was eclipsed only by Orval E. Faubus of Arkansas, George C. Wallace of Alabama and Ross Barnett of Mississippi as gubernatorial symbols of Southern defiance of federal authority during the tumultuous civil rights era.

Many regarded him as a bigot and a demagogue, but as governor from 1967 to 1971 Mr. Maddox posted a record of political reform and economic growth that won praise, mostly grudging, from some of his fiercest critics.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a black civil rights activist, credits Mr. Maddox with appointing blacks to positions they had never held before and for his prison reforms, but said his legacy is stained by his refusal to acknowledge segregation was wrong.

“If Lester had said, ‘I was wrong,’ I believe the vast majority of African-Americans would have said, ‘OK, we forgive you,”’ Mr. Brooks said.

“The Maddox administration was a good one, marked with historic and progressive achievements,” said Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, and once an aide to Mr. Maddox. “Under his watch, Georgia instituted a more humane prison system, and integrated the Georgia State Patrol, and county welfare and draft boards throughout the state. History will judge his administration well.”

Barred by law from seeking re-election in 1970, Mr. Maddox instead successfully sought election as lieutenant governor, serving in that office during the governorship of fellow Democrat Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Maddox “worked hard for the state for many years, making himself remarkably accessible to the people of Georgia,” Mr. Carter said yesterday.

Some other Southern Democrats, including both Messrs. Wallace and Carter, later renounced segregation, and some, like Mr. Faubus, insisted they resisted for state’s rights principles, but Mr. Maddox was unrepentant.

“I want my race preserved and I hope most everybody else wants theirs preserved,” he said in 2001. Both “forced segregation” and “forced integration” were equally “illegal and wrong,” he said.

Born in a working-class Atlanta neighborhood in 1915, Lester Garfield Maddox dropped out of school and went to work during the Great Depression.

At 17, Mr. Maddox was walking down the street when a girl on a bicycle rode past, eating an Eskimo Pie. “I went into the ice cream store and found out who she was,” Mr. Maddox later recalled.

She was 13-year-old Hattie Virginia Cox, and she married him four years later, in 1936. The marriage lasted 61 years and produced two sons, two daughters, 10 grandchildren and five great-great grandchildren. The woman Mr. Maddox called his “precious Virginia” died in 1997.

Mr. Maddox opened a small restaurant in 1944, later sold it and, with $400 of the proceeds, established a larger restaurant near the Georgia Tech campus. Specializing in fried chicken, the Pickrick Restaurant eventually became the scene of one of the most famous confrontations of the civil rights movement.

Mr. Maddox wrote his own newspaper ads, featuring homespun remarks under the title “Pickrick Says.” As the fight over segregation intensified in the late 1950s, the ads became political. One declared: “Just in case some of you Communists, Socialists and Integrationists have any doubt — The Pickrick will never be Integrated.”

In July 1964, one day after passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, three black students tried to enter the Pickrick. Mr. Maddox met them with a revolver in hand, while his employees wielded ax handles to chase them away. The event made national headlines. Mr. Maddox soon was selling souvenir ax handles he called “Pickrick Toothpicks.”

Mr. Maddox insisted he was defending basic American values. “My fight at the Pickrick was for the right of private property, the right of free enterprise for every human being in this country,” he later said.

Mr. Maddox closed the restaurant in 1965 rather than serve blacks and declared himself a candidate for governor in the 1966 election. His supporters covered the state with signs declaring, “This is Maddox Country.”

He placed second to former Gov. Ellis Arnall in a crowded Democratic primary; neither man got a majority, forcing a runoff which Mr. Maddox won. Mr. Maddox’s segregationist stance — and outlandish stunts like riding a bicycle backward in parades — embarrassed Atlanta business leaders who had cultivated the city’s progressive image on race relations.

Howard “Bo” Callaway nearly became Georgia’s first Republican governor since Reconstruction, getting 3,000 more votes than Mr. Maddox. But because of 50,000 write-in votes for Mr. Arnall, who had lost the Democratic primary to Mr. Maddox, no candidate won a majority. The decision went to the General Assembly, which voted 182-66 for Mr. Maddox.

He surprised opponents and supporters alike by appointing more blacks to state jobs than any previous Georgia governor.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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