Mon, April 21, 2014

Lester's Last Stand

Lester Maddox
At the 1970 Peach Bowl at Grant Field in Atlanta, the Selma High School Band waited to play the National Anthem. The stadium announcer shouted, "Ladies and gentlemen . . . Governor Lester Maddox!" It was an odd sight: the governor of Georgia in his trademark seersucker suit was sitting on the handlebars of a bicycle riding backwards around the entire football field as part of the pre-game ceremonies.

Thirty-two years later, at Roswell Street Baptist Church, hundreds of mourners stare at Maddox's coffin, draped in an American flag and flanked by a bouquet of flowers with a Confederate battle flag centerpiece. Those in attendance are consoled by selections from Maddox's 1971 album God, Family, and Country, a collection of hymns and ruminations on religion and patriotism by the former governor. A year earlier, Maddox had stipulated that the album be played at his memorial service, a predictable request from a man who never missed an opportunity to perform. Last summer, Maddox had been scheduled to sing "The Star Spangled Banner" during the city of Roswell's Fourth of July celebration. Instead, the legendary segregationist whipped out his harmonica and blew a couple of verses of "Dixie."

Maddox, a high-school dropout, became governor of Georgia in 1966 when the Democrat-controlled state legislature appointed him to office. (Maddox had lost to Republican Bo Callaway by 3,000 votes, but a write-in campaign by a third candidate kept Callaway from receiving a majority.) As governor, Maddox banned women from wearing skirts above their knees at the state capitol. Regarding prison reform, Governor Maddox made little attempt to hide his disgust with law-breakers: "We are doing the best we can, and before we do much better, we have to get a better grade of prisoner." Unable to succeed himself four years later, Maddox became the first Georgia governor to be elected lieutenant governor. He reveled in his role as Governor Jimmy Carter's number one bureaucratic headache throughout Carter's tenure, eventually challenging him for the presidency as the American Independent Party candidate in 1976.

In 1964, Maddox's reputation as a racist created headlines. While white customers brandished axe handles, he waved a pistol to chase away black diners attempting to eat at his Pickrick Restaurant, a fried chicken café he had opened in Atlanta in 1947. Seizing a marketing opportunity, Maddox began selling axe handles, known as "Pickrick drumsticks," as souvenirs to Pickrick patrons. He finally closed the restaurant rather than comply with federal orders to desegregate. Ironically, he was praised in later years as "Georgia's most honest governor" by late Atlanta civil rights activist Reverend Hosea Williams for hiring large number of minorities to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the Georgia State Patrol, and other state agencies.

Maddox, however, refused to apologize for his segregationist convictions. As governor, Maddox skipped Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s, funeral in Atlanta, instead remaining in the governor's office, where he reportedly fumed that a Capitol groundskeeper had lowered the American and Georgia flags to half-staff in honor of King. "I am still a segregationist," he proclaimed when Maynard Jackson was elected the first black mayor of Atlanta in 1973. Oddly, Jackson died on June 23, two days before Maddox. Three days later, Jackson lay in state at City Hall across the street from the State Capitol, where Maddox lay in state the next day.

Maddox's big ears, thick glasses, and trademark seersucker suit created a caricature that perfectly complemented his fabled shenanigans. He walked off the "Dick Cavett Show" when Truman Capote called Maddox supporters "bigots." Maddox had appeared on the "Cavett Show" singing and playing harmonica with blues guitarist Bobby Lee Fears, a black man who had once worked in Maddox's Pickrick Restaurant. Known as "The Governor and the Dishwasher," the comedy/musical duo briefly toured clubs and dinner theaters along the East Coast in the early 1970s, eventually appearing on NBC's renowned comedy show "Laugh-In." The former governor's response to the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center was classic Maddox: "I'm not surprised that it happened because Uncle Sam has turned into 'Uncle Sucker.' What do we do when an enemy attacks us? Rebuild their countries and take care of their people!"

At Maddox's funeral, the marquee outside of Mulligan's Food and Spirits next to the church proclaims "Bye Bye Lester" on one side and "Eric Rudolph Ate in Our Dumpster" on the other. During the memorial service, Maddox is eulogized by local pastors, including one irate preacher outraged that Atlanta newspapers had suggested that Maddox was a racist. "Governor Maddox was not a racist . . . but he was a segregationist. We're all segregationists!" the pastor shouts as he explains that everyone segregates themselves according to tastes in clothes, favorite foods, etc. Senator Zell Miller recalls that Maddox once lay down on the floor in front of the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., to demonstrate proper breathing techniques that helped him overcome health problems suffered in a near-fatal accident while working at the Bessemer (Alabama) Galvanizing Works in 1940. His obituary details a meeting with George Wallace in 1971 when Maddox reportedly convinced Wallace to run for president in 1972 as a Democrat rather than as an Independent. Maddox was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Law from Bob Jones University (which outlawed interracial dating for years), where he once served on the Board of Directors. He belonged to the National Rifle Association, Gun Owners of America, Military Order of the Stars and Bars, and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans.

At the service, bagpipes play "Amazing Grace" as Maddox is surrounded by his aging Masonic Lodge brothers, who chant peculiar recitations while gathered in a semicircle around his coffin. In keeping with Maddox's idiosyncratic life, the graveside service is not without its bizarre moments. The elderly Mason conducting the burial rites forgets the former governor's name as he places a white glove on the casket, a Masonic gesture of eternal brotherhood. While a bugler plays "Taps," an elderly fellow passes out from the heat as the funeral home director runs around the cemetery shouting for someone to call 911. Two dozen state troopers look on helplessly. As blaring sirens announce the arrival of an ambulance and fire truck, a black woman in jeans stands respectfully near the casket, a photo of Hosea Williams emblazoned on the front of her T-shirt. The back of the shirt reads: Unbought. Unbossed. Unsold.

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