Lester Maddox (1915-2003)
The tumultuous political and social change in Georgia during the 1960s yielded perhaps the state's most unlikely governor, Lester Maddox. Brought to office in 1966 by widespread dissatisfaction with desegregation, Maddox surprised many by serving as an able and unquestionably colorful chief executive
Born in Atlanta to a working-class family on September 30, 1915, Lester Garfield Maddox grew up knowing poverty. By
In 1947 Maddox opened his most enduring and successful enterprise, the Pickrick Cafeteria. Located in Atlanta at 891 Hemphill Avenue, the Pickrick offered home-style fare near the campus of the Georgia Institute of Technology. In 1949 Maddox ran the first of his "Pickrick Says" advertisements in the Atlanta Journal. Through the voice of "Pickrick," Maddox's fictional alter ego, these advertisements promoted the culinary offerings of the restaurant with a generous helping of the proprietor's homespun political commentary. Through these missives Maddox created a forum for anxieties shared by white working-class Atlantans, mostly over the issues of segregation and perceived governmental corruption. The popularity of Maddox's sometimes pointed and combative monologues led to his emergence as a public figure.
Entry into Politics
Although many Atlanta businesses had desegregated before the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Maddox's Pickrick remained stubbornly wedded to the segregationist Jim Crow policies. The passage of the act put Maddox on a collision course with the "forces of integration" he so ardently opposed. As a conspicuous symbol of segregationist defiance, the Pickrick became an immediate target of civil rights activists seeking to test the new law.
On July 3, 1964, Maddox and a throng of supporters wielding axe handles forcibly turned away three black activists. A photograph of the scene ran on the front pages of newspapers across the nation, creating an image of Maddox as a violent racist. Maddox would both shun and cultivate this reputation at various points throughout his career. After losing a year-long legal battle in which he challenged the constitutionality of the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Maddox elected to close his restaurant rather than desegregate.
Maddox as Governor
Maddox's term was not without controversy, however. Fearing riots during the funeral procession of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, Maddox greatly overreacted with a heavy-handed police presence, and he refused to order flags at state facilities to be lowered to half-mast. As the leader of the state's delegation to the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago, Illinois, Maddox fought against the civil rights aims of the party.
Despite such conflict, Maddox remained a popular governor with many of Georgia's citizens, paradoxically including many African Americans. He instituted such populist ideas as "Little People's Day," when average citizens could line up to meet with the governor twice a month at the Governor's Mansion on West Paces Ferry Drive in Buckhead.
After the Governorship
Bruce Galphin, The Riddle of Lester Maddox (Atlanta: Camelot, 1968).
Justin Nystrom, "Segregation's Last Stand: Lester Maddox and the Transformation of Atlanta," Atlanta History 45 (summer 2001).
Brad Rice, "Lester Maddox and the Politics of Populism," in Georgia Governors in an Age of Change: From Ellis Arnall to George Busbee, ed. Harold P. Henderson and Gary L. Roberts (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1988).
Bob Short, Everything Is Pickrick: The Life of Lester Maddox (Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1999).
Justin Nystrom, University of Georgia
A project of the Georgia Humanities Council, in partnership with the University of Georgia Press, the University System of Georgia/GALILEO, and the Office of the Governor.