Lester Maddox

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Governor Ignoramus

As I wrote earlier chasing black people out his restaurant with an axe made Lester Maddox a hero to racists everywhere. He ran for governor. None of the candidates achieved the majority required under Georgia law. So it went to the state lawmakers. Maddox like almost ever politician in the South between Lincoln and Reagan was a Democrat. And he was such a dope the politicians thought he'd be easy to control. They made him governor.

But dopes have opinions and can be pretty stubborn about them. But he didn't have the political skills to get anything done and Georgia government in many ways went on hiatus.

I have a pet theory that beneath the veneer imposed by socialization the average person has beliefs that are mightily batty. I don't mean ugliness like racism. Have you even been talking with someone at a bus stop or checkout line and as you listened you realized that they know little about how the world works: government, the entertainment industry, most everything. But they form opinions involuntarily like air rushing to fill a vacuum. Secular superstition. Put someone who isn't reflexively conformist in a position of freedom and the results are apt to be unexpected.

When Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated he ordered the Secretary of State to raised the flags that had been flags that had been lowered in King's honor (the Secretary refused). But Maddox gave more money for education than anyone else in the state ever had. His summary of the problems of state prisoners was that Georgia had low class inmates

Lester and the Georgia speed trap

Lester Goes to Ludowici was a song written about his most entertaining accomplishment. Ludowici, GA was the most corrupt town in Georgia. You couldn't drive through it without getting a ticket and being forced to pay a fine. Maddox put signs up on all the roads and highways leading to the town warning people to change their route and not drive into the county. That put a big dent in their graft.

Georgia governors were not allowed to succeed themselves. He ran for Lieutenant Governor and won overwhelmingly. The governor was Jimmy Carter. But after four years he was able to run again. I was doing political polling that year. It was clear that he'd never win. Even people who liked him felt he made the state look like "the ass hole of the nation." While governor he'd ridden his bicycle backward at a major football game. That left even conservative Georgians embarrassed by him.

Later he opened a restaurant and gift shop in Underground Atlanta, a tourist ghetto. He sold souvenir axe-handles. Later with a dishwasher from the restaurant he had a syndicated sitcom, The Governor and the Dishwasher. It fizzled. Last I heard he was alive and doing well on a macrobiotic diet.*

He wasn't a racist as you think of them. He was a segregationist. Politically the distinction is meaningless. In an individual of Maddox's time it separates a malignant man from a misguided one. Possibly the best testimony for Lester's basic decency is that he is much admired by Hosea Williams, Atlanta's most outrageous and often radical black politician.

"Jungle bunny schools"

He never got more than a thousand votes** but J.B. Stoner was the real racist who ran for governor. His TV commercial stunned me. Dixie was playing, there was a big Confederate flag in the background. The man was shouting that he was going to "clean up the jungle bunny schools" and "ship them all back to Africa." The commercial was followed with the statement that by law the TV station could not refuse Stoner time. The Savannah Morning News placed something similar next to his print ads. Many years later he was jailed for blowing up a black church.

Shortly after moving to a new house I found a copy of his newspaper, The Thunderbolt on our lawn. The depth of hatred, the fantastic and bizarre opinions of classes of people was an instant education in nastiness.

Much of it was the almost parody stuff about Jewish bankers and the Trilateral Commission's secret control of the nation's destiny. There was an article claiming to prove that black people were descended from chickens. There was even a faked photo of an African tribesman with chicken feet. Who could be so ignorant to believe that?

American Fuehrer

A couple of years later a communist acquaintance that collected hate literature showed me something similar. It was an issue of the magazine published by "American Fuehrer" George Lincoln Rockwell's American Nazi Party. Most of the contents were the same wearisome weird drivel about Jewish conspiracies. But there was a comic strip; starring White man I think his name was. He fought the "Jew from Outer Space" who created the "Super Nigger." A big laugh riot for the pathetic fools who read the magazine I guess.

Anti-Semitism was something I'd only read about in books. Savannah had a Jewish mayor in the 1950s and many citywide high school dances were held at a synagogue. The racism was mostly buried. Almost every black neighborhood abutted a white one. I dimly recall a civil rights protest going on outside my house when we lived downtown. I was probably six.

It became more visible with school busing. Having to leave the school building because of bomb threats for about an hour became common (we all thought it was a treat). But things were never remotely as violent as Boston in the 70s. Parents complained about the extra time their kids spent on buses. Mostly it was accepted. Black Muslims were on the main street selling Muhammad Speaks (Elijah Muhammad was Louis Farrakhan's predecessor as the head of the Nation of Islam). No one ever bothered them. As far as I could tell Savannah made its transition comparatively easily.

Related: "Nigger!", Was Robert Heinlein but somehow wound up with anti-Semitism

* Lester Maddox died in June of 2003.

** See anonymous comment below.

[Listening to: La Forme - Kraftwerk - (8:41)]
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Your rant is as full of misinformation as it is filled with what you laughably rail against: ignorance. Yours is overwhelming. For instance, J.B. Stoner polled over 40,000 votes in his senatorial campaign in 1972 (you erroneously stated that “he never got more than a(sic) 1,000 votes”. Might be best to do some research and check your facts before you go spewing your government-inspired venom, eh?

Anonymous Bigot:

No research, just going by what I remember when I was a kid. The thousand votes might’ve been another election. Don’t really know if he ran for state-wide office more than once.

Lester was a cousin of mine, and I have to tell you, although he made some horrible decisions and had some outrageous views, he was a good man. If you look at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s website, you will see some of his better quotes proving that he did not hate blacks. He merely saw that we could never live together peacefully. From what I have seen so far, he was right in that conclusion. Look at all the race related violence and controversy. I feel that Ol’ Lester has been vindicated through the actions of todays American citizens.

A few days after Lester Maddox took office as Governor, he sat down with the director of the State Merit System and told him that, thereafter, all state jobs would be filled on the basis of merit, alone, and that neither race nor gender would be considered. A year or so later, a black tabloid printed in Augusta, Georgia, “The Augusta Mirror,” had a headline that said, “Maddox Is Best Governor Georgia Ever Had.” The editor went on to say that he had gone down to Capitol Hill and, for the first time in Georgia history, he saw “black faces” among the many persons employed there. Up until that time, NOT ONE SINGLE BLACK had been employed by the State in any capacity except to do janitorial-type jobs with no benefits. During his term in office, hundreds of blacks were employed in, and appointed to, positions ranging from secretary to agency board member. Maddox ordered the hiring of the first Georgia State Patrol trooper and appointed the first black to the Draft Board with the comment, “They get drafted don’t they? Then they should be represented on the board.” Does that sound like a racist? Or somebody who “did nothing.” Some hiatus. Ironically, during the same week that the Mirror headline appeared, an almost identical headline appeared in “The Augusta Courier,” a segregationist tabloid. In reality, neither publication fairly represented Maddox. His battle was not against equal rights for blacks; he was fighting to preserve every American’s freedom of choice, the rights constitutionally reserved to the various states, and the right of every American, regardless of his color, to engage in private free enterprise. The Federal Government was never given the right by the people it governs to forcefully require that schools, businesses, or any other entity be integrated. While forced segregation was wrong, forced integration was just as evil. As Maddox predicted, it destroyed neighborhoods, both black and white, and provided the catalyst for a disintegration of respect for authority that continues, even today, to sap our nation’s strength. That trend was given additional fuel by the immoral war against the people of Vietnam. Are American children, whether black, white, brown or yellow, better off than they were in a segregated America? Look at the statistics. Try to get life insurance for a young black man living in an urban slum. Try to find a 14-year-old who has never been sexually active or done dope. Find a teenager who has not at least considered suicide. One of my favorite cartoons shows Satan greeting a group of wide-eyed new arrivals and saying, with a smirk, “Would any of you ultraliberal atheists like to have a ‘moment of silence’ before I convert you to crispy critters?” Whether you’re baking a loaf of bread or molding a nation, the work you do will be judged by the end product. I see nothing that you can be proud of, and it’s getting ever worse, not better. Lester Maddox was a noble, but naive, Don Quixote who, often standing alone, did the best job he could do of battling the ever-encroaching federal windmills. He deserves better than you and other rubber-stamp history gossips have given him.

In May 1999, I knocked on the door of a run down old house. A huge sign in the front yard was, to me, a cry for help. The sign was an expression of grief over the loss of a wife of 61 years, so clearly whoever lived there was an old man in his mid 80s, heartbroken and grieving. After passing that house and that sign for more than a year, I pulled in the driveway on May 9, 1999.

I knew what I was going to say when he came to the door. “I just wanted to drop by and express to you how much I admire a man who would honor the memory of his wife like you did with that sign in your yard.” I figured that would be a good opening line, a good way to get him started purging a bit.

We get rewarded for unselfish acts in miraculous ways sometimes. I have always loved history. I read civil war diaries, biographies, anything that helps me get to know the personalities and politics of old times.

After I said my planned line to the old man, I said “My name is Fred Whitaker.” He said “My name is Lester Maddox.”

And that is how I became the best friend of the former Governor Lester Maddox for the last four years he lived. First hand stories of historical figures and events, introductions to current and past Governors, past Presidents, past First Ladies, relationships with the most powerful people in the state… the treasures flowed my way.

I was well rewarded for my moment of random kindness to a stranger. At least three times a month for four years, the Governor and I went somewhere together, if only to Picadilly Cafeteria. He was too old to drive, so if he wanted to go somewhere, I took him. I savored every moment of it.

When Maddox was Governor (1967-71), I was in college (1969-1972), behaving like all other liberal college students of that time. He probably would have loved to see me in jail back in those days. For me to befriend the segregationist icon of the Civil Rights era was outrageously improbable, and a mismatch made in heaven.

My friends kidded me sometimes about my friendship with Governor Maddox. When I was going to take him to really special events, like the annual dinner at the Governor’s Mansion honoring the GA General Assembly, the dedication of the Virginia and Lester Maddox Bridge (I-75 over the Chattahoochie) at the Capitol, or to a dinner honoring Barbara Bush, my friends would remind me to iron my sheet. But for me, it was a rare and special friendship. He was pure in principle, deeply religious, self-educated and brilliant. I clearly learned how easily and unfairly the thinking of a segregationist and pure proponent of the rights of private property can be labeled as racist, and was most richly blessed by helping to make more bearable the last four years of the life of a lonely and grieving old man.

Your feelings?

Please share your feelings about Lester Maddox.

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