Maddox came to prominence as a staunch segregationist and maintained, to his death, that he never had any regrets. However, Tom Murphy (former Georgia House Speaker) stated: "He had a reputation as a segregationist, but he told us he was not a segregationist, but that you should be able to associate with whoever you wanted."
Lester Maddox was the first governor of Georgia born in Atlanta, the second of the seven children of Dean Garfield Maddox and Flonnie Castleberry Maddox; his father was a steelworker. Dropping out of school following his junior year in high school, Maddox earned $4 a week at a local drugstore in order to help the family's finances in the midst of the Depression. He went on to become an apprentice dental technician before accepting a job in his father's line of work at the steel mills. Starting out at a salary of $10 per week, Maddox eventually was promoted to foreman.
Maddox made the Pickrick a family affair with his wife and children working side-by-side with him. The restaurant became known for its simple, inexpensive food, including its specialty, skillet-fried chicken. It soon became a thriving business. The restaurant also provided Maddox with his first political forum: the restaurant became well known in Atlanta for large newspaper advertisements that featured cartoon chickens. Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, these restaurant ads began more and more to feature the cartoon chickens commenting on the political questions of the day. However, Maddox's refusal to adjust to changes following the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 manifested itself when he filed a lawsuit to continue his segregationist policies. Maddox said that he would close his restaurant rather than serve black people. An initial group of black demonstrators came to the restaurant but did not enter when Maddox informed them that he had a large number of black employees. In April 1964, more African-Americans attempted to enter the restaurant. Maddox confronted the group, brandishing a handgun. Maddox provides the following account of the events:
Mostly customers, with only a few employees, voluntarily removed the twelve Pickrick Drumsticks (pick handles) from the nail kegs on each side of the large dining room fireplace. They had been forewarned by the arrival of Atlanta's news media of an impending attempted invasion of our restaurant by the racial demonstrators and once the demonstrators and agitators arrived, the customers and employees pulled the drumsticks from the kegs and went outside to defend against the threatened invasion.
Unable to win his case, he became a martyr to segregationist advocates by selling the restaurant to employees rather than agreeing to serve black customers.
The building was purchased by Georgia Tech in 1965 and was used for many years as the placement center. It is currently known as the Ajax building.
In 1962, Maddox ran for Lieutenant Governor against Peter Zack Geer, a candidate who shared his opponent's strong segregationist and states-rights views. In an effort to differentiate from each other, both candidates attempted to paint the other as an extremist. Geer won the race, but Maddox gained valuable recognition across the state.
Stunned, Arnall announced a write-in candidacy for the general election, insisting that Georgians must have the option of a moderate Democrat besides party-nominee Maddox and the Republican candidate. In that contest, Republican nominee Howard "Bo" Callaway, the first Republican member of the United States House of Representatives elected from Georgia since the close of Reconstruction, won a plurality, and Maddox finished second. Under the election rules then in effect, the state legislature was required to select a governor from the two candidates with the highest number of votes. With the legislature overwhelmingly dominated by Democrats, all of whom had been required to sign a Democratic loyalty oath which required them to support Democrats only, Maddox became Governor, serving from 1967 to 1971.
Maddox campaigned hard for states' rights but then governed as a moderate, and appointed more blacks to state government office than any of his predecessors. Despite this, Maddox did manifest anti-black sentiments while in office. Upon the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., he denied the slain civil rights leader the honor of lying in state in the Georgia state capitol after being provided reports from undercover agents in the Atlanta Police Department that there was a planned storming of the state capitol by participants in the crowd of mourners. As a precaution, Maddox stationed 64 officers in riot gear stationed in groups of eight at each of the entrances to the capitol.
His often self-deprecating humor and off-the-cuff manner stood in contrast to the fiery rhetoric of other Southern politicians such as George Wallace and Strom Thurmond: when asked what could be done to improve the abysmal conditions in Georgia prisons, Maddox replied that what was really needed was a better class of prisoner. Maddox's chief of staff was Zell Miller, who went on to serve two terms as governor in the 1990s.
In 1968, a small Atlanta repertory company produced a play entitled, "Red, White and Maddox". The play ridiculed Maddox and imagined him winning the 1972 U.S. presidential election, then starting a war with the Soviet Union. The show came to Broadway and ran 41 performances at the Cort Theatre before closing.
Under the Georgia constitution of 1945, Maddox was prohibited from running for a second consecutive term, necessitating a 1970 run for Lieutenant Governor of Georgia. Although Maddox was elected as a Democratic candidate at the same time as Jimmy Carter's election as Governor as a Democratic candidate, the two were not running mates; in Georgia, particularly in that era of Democratic dominance, the winners of the primary elections went on to easy victories in the general elections without campaigning together as an official ticket or as running mates. Carter and Maddox found little common ground during their four years of service, often publicly feuding with each other.
Shortly after that election, Maddox appeared as a guest on The Dick Cavett Show on December 18, 1970. During a commercial break, fellow guest and former football player Jim Brown asked Maddox if he had "any trouble with the white bigots because of all the things you did for blacks." On the air, Cavett substituted the word "admirers" in place of "bigots", enraging Maddox. After demanding an apology from Cavett and getting it, Maddox walked off the show.
Maddox ran again for governor in 1974 but lost in the Democratic primary to George Busbee. Maddox called the campaign against Busbee "the worst thing I have ever been involved in." Busbee then handily defeated Republican Ronnie Thompson, who had hoped to have faced Maddox in the fall campaign. Thompson called Maddox "a counterfeit conservative" and challenged the outgoing lieutenant governor to a debate. Maddox's former chief of staff Zell Miller was successful in his own bid to succeed Maddox as lieutenant governor. When Carter ran for President in 1976, Maddox ran against him as the nominee of the American Independent Party, saying that his former rival was "the most dishonest man I ever met." Maddox only received 170,000 votes in the election, less than 1 percent of the vote.
With his political career over and with massive debts stemming from his 1974 gubernatorial bid, Maddox began a short-lived nightclub comedy career in 1977 with an African-American, Bobby Lee Sears, who had worked as a busboy in his restaurant. Sears had served time in prison for a drug offense before Maddox, as Lieutenant Governor, was able to assist him in obtaining a pardon. Calling themselves "The Governor and the Dishwasher," the duo performed comedy bits built around musical numbers with Maddox on harmonica and Sears on guitar.
On September 25, 1977, Maddox suffered a heart attack, but recovered and attended a number of appreciation dinners from Georgia Democrats that reduced his debts. In an attempt to raise further money, Maddox auctioned off memorabilia the following year from his days as a restaurateur and a politician. Included in this collection were autographed ax handles. The auction brought only $1,392, but Maddox refused to declare bankruptcy, saying, "I'd rather die."
Maddox began a real estate company, but never again experienced the financial success he had enjoyed with the "Pickrick." When he was diagnosed with cancer in 1983, Maddox traveled to the Bahamas for experimental treatment. Two years later, the facility where he received his treatment was closed due to fears of contamination by AIDS. He never contracted the latter disease, and made a successful recovery from his cancer.
He made one final unsuccessful bid for governor in 1990, then underwent heart surgery the following year. He remained a visible figure in his home community of Cobb County for the remainder of his life. In 1992 and 1996, Maddox crossed party lines and endorsed unsuccessful populist Republican Patrick J. Buchanan for the presidency. His last public speech was in Atlanta in 2001 at the annual national conference of the Council of Conservative Citizens. This group, of which he was a charter member, is considered by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), NAACP, League of United Latin American Citizens, and Anti-Defamation League to be a racist or white supremacist group.
Lester Maddox and his wife Virginia were married for sixty-one years. At Maddox's home, a prominent landmark was a sign he had made. The first half of the sign read: "Thanks be to God; He has given me my precious Virginia for 61 years as of May 9, '97." A second sign was added below it after his wife died shortly after. This sign read: "and God took her from me and carried her home 45 days later."
The Interstate Highway 75 bridge over the Chattahoochee River at the southeastern boundary of Cobb County, GA is named the Lester and Virginia Maddox Bridge.
Last night I saw Lester Maddox on a TV showAccording to an interviewer from the alternative newspaper Creative Loafing, "What offends [Maddox] most is Newman's crude reference to the Jewish man." It should be noted, however, that Newman's lines are from the point of view of an unreliable narrator: specifically, a self-proclaimed "redneck" who assumes, incorrectly, that Cavett is Jewish.
With some smart-ass New York Jew
And the Jew laughed at Lester Maddox
And the audience laughed at Lester Maddox too
Well, he may be a fool, but he's our fool
And if they think they're better than him, they're wrong
So I went to the park and I took some paper along
And that's where I made this song