Lester Maddox: Christian, American, Governor, Segregationist

Yesterday, I went to the Atlanta History Center to see the new “Atlanta in 50 Objects” exhibit. Most of the choices were predictable, but still interesting: a copy of “Gone With the Wind,” White and Colored signs from the Jim Crow era, the old school Pink Pig that used to be at the downtown Macy’s, MLK’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, funerary from Oakland Cemetery, etc. However, there was one entry that really surprised and interested me: the “pickrick” (i.e., axe handle turned club) that Lester Maddox used to chase black civil rights protesters away from his restaurant, the Pickrick Cafeteria:



From the linked NYT obit:

Mr. Maddox first came to national attention in 1964, after he violated the newly signed federal Civil Rights Act by refusing to serve three black Georgia Tech students at his Pickrick Restaurant. The Pickrick was noted for the quality of its fried chicken and for its reasonable prices, but Mr. Maddox was determined that no black should experience the ambience that he had reserved exclusively for whites.

When the three black men tried to buy some of his chicken in July 1964, Mr. Maddox waved a pistol at them and said: ”You no good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!”

Some of his customers were sympathetic to his cause and interrupted their meal to take pick handles that Mr. Maddox had put by the door (and sold for $2 apiece) to make it clear that the blacks would not be served. The pick handles, which Mr. Maddox also sold in his souvenir shop, were called ”Pickrick drumsticks” and came to symbolize his resistance to the civil rights movement. On occasion, Mr. Maddox would autograph the handles.

The next month he picketed the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, where, he believed, most of the promoters of civil rights legislation could be found. He vowed he would never serve blacks in his restaurant, and so he sold it. The two former employees who bought it reopened it on a desegregated basis, but not before Mr. Maddox erected a monument in front of the building to mourn the ”death of private property rights in America.”

Slight of stature, Mr. Maddox was direct and outspoken in the defense of his convictions, which he wrapped in a states’ rights banner. These included the view that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, that integration was a Communist plot, that segregation was somewhere justified in Scripture and that a federal mandate to integrate schools was ”ungodly, un-Christian and un-American.”

This being Georgia, Maddox was eventually elected governor in 1966, despite or perhaps even because of his violent opposition to black civil rights. While Maddox didn’t turn out to be the second coming of George Wallace and governed as a “racial moderate,” he clearly never gave up his segregationist views, saying that segregation was “Christian…and American.” However, he understood that threatening to beat blacks with ax handles wasn’t going to fly anymore with the Civil Rights Act being signed into law, so I suppose he had to make the best of what he perceived to be a bad situation.

Maddox’s views illustrates the extent to which racism and segregation was and has been normalized as “Christian and American.” The South and its Northern enablers created a form of Christianity in which racial apartheid was not only justified, but considered a social good. Even today in 2016, it’s not hard to find writers on “the American Conservative,” the Ludwig von Mises Institute, or  Lew Rockwell.com who think that civil rights laws are tyranny, but actual slavery is okay, as long as non-whites are the ones being enslaved. Looking at some of the increasingly chaotic and authoritarian scenes from Donald Trump rallies, it doesn’t seem like we’ve progressed that far from the days of Maddox.

The example of Maddox also shows how absurd it is for people like Rod Dreher to fret over being seen as the modern-day equivilent of Bull Conner because of their opposition to LGBT rights, because open segregationists like Conner, Maddox, Wallace, et. al were never seen as personae non gratae during their lifetimes. Conner remained in public office until his death in the early 1970s, and Wallace’s career went into the late 1980s. When Maddox died in 2003, George governor Sonny Perdue ordered flags at half-staff, something he didn’t do when Maynard Jackson, famed civil rights activist and the first black mayor of Atlanta died several days previously. Even the most public and unrepentant segregationists are still given more respect in life and in death than those who fought against Jim Crow.

In case you’re wondering, I did take a cell phone photo of Maddox’s “pickrick,” signed by the man himself: