Back Story: Maddox openly defied Civil Rights Act in Georgia

I was traveling alone in Georgia during the summer of 1964 to visit relatives, and vividly recall that a year after the March on Washington, a sense of racial tension still permeated much of the South.

I was from New Jersey, my mother was from Macon, Ga., and when we would visit her family during summers in the 1950s, she made no attempt to politely explain away the signs of segregation that marked "colored" waiting rooms in railroad stations and bus terminals or the signs directing African-Americans to "colored" restrooms, restaurants and roadside hotels.

This was the segregated world she had grown up in and wanted me to understand that it was both morally and constitutionally wrong to believe in such a thing. No man was better than anyone else, especially when it came to riding trains or buses, buying a meal or lodging.

It was also during that long hot summer of 1964 when arch-segregationist Lester Maddox, owner of the Pickrick, an Atlanta restaurant, exploded onto the national scene.

In an ugly display of defiance, Maddox, a race baiter, chose to openly defy the Civil Rights Act, which had recently been signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Maddox's moment came when he refused service to three African-American Georgia Tech students who had come to dine on the Pickrick's acclaimed fried chicken.

And to make sure that the three students understood that he was perfectly serious in his opposition to the new law and public accommodation, he waved a .38-caliber revolver at them for good measure while calling them "You no good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!"

Those dining in the Pickrick who shared their host's racial attitudes picked up the pick-ax handles that Maddox kept by the door and sold for $2 a piece and would gladly autograph — known as "Pickrick drumsticks" — to put the students in their place, which they clearly thought was not in the dining room of the Pickrick.

"'Ol' Lester,' as he was known alike to those who admired and were embarrassed by him, was a living caricature of the old white South," wrote Baltimore Sun columnist Jules Witcover when Maddox died at 87 in 2003.

"He mixed outward courtliness with inner racism, as if his relentless good manners made up for his unremitting resistance against the slightest concession to racial equality," he wrote.

Rather than bend to the new law, Maddox chose to close the Pickrick, which employed 75 people, 44 of them African-Americans.

"The Communists have put me out of business," he wailed at the time to The New York Times, as he continued assailing the Civil Rights Act. "I cannot and will not surrender to it."

In addition to being a staunch states' rights advocate and believing that African-Americans were intellectually inferior to whites, Maddox nurtured a long list of hatreds.

"His opinions were no less fixed on other issues. He was opposed to drinking, smoking, liberal clergymen, atheism, socialism, the press, civil rights workers, 'do-gooder foundations' and the wearing of miniskirts in the state Capitol," reported The New York Times in 2003.

"He advocated short haircuts for men, the Baptist Church (at least, its more conservative members), the Georgia Chamber of Commerce and the singing of 'God Bless America,' a tune for which apparently he had an insatiable appetite," observed the newspaper.

Maddox made headlines in 1965, when he announced his intention to run in the 1966 Democratic primary for governor, which was met instantly with the full endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan.

When he won election, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said it made him "ashamed to be a Georgian."

He served as governor until 1970, when he was elected lieutenant governor, serving under Jimmy Carter, whom he considered a political enemy, which made for a tense relationship.

The old segregationist war horse ran unsuccessfully again for governor in 1974, and two years later, was the American Independent Party's candidate for president.

Ol' Lester proved in a 2001 interview with the Associated Press that even with the passage of time, he had lost none of his racial intolerance.

"I want my race preserved. … I think forced segregation is illegal and wrong," he said. "I think forced racial integration is illegal and wrong. I believe both of them to be unconstitutional."

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