Lester Maddox's 75th birthday. I think of him...

TOMORROW IS

September 29, 1990|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

TOMORROW IS Lester Maddox's 75th birthday. I think of him fondly every now and then. He brought me fame and fortune. Well, fame. Well, limited local notoriety.

This was in Atlanta in 1961. Maddox owned a restaurant called the Pickrick that started small and became a huge success (half a million dollars a year gross by the early Sixties). The success was due to his newspaper advertising. Every Saturday he ran a two-column, 16-inch ad that was partly about his business but mostly about his white supremacist politics.

I have one framed on my office wall here. "Pickrick [which he began to call himself] Says BEWARE of the pinks, punks and eggheads" who criticized him. I had written a column for one of the Atlanta papers ridiculing his segregationist ranting and raving. He ranted and raved about me ("Teddy Boy . . . Teddy Boy") for 12 inches, then smoothly changed gears to "Special Tonight Order of Pickrick Skillet Fried Chicken 2(drumstick and thigh served only in our cafeteria department)."

Getting attacked by Lester Maddox brought me much more mail than my own column ever did.

Maddox's advertising was clever media manipulation, and his segregationist record soon became enough of a political asset to win him votes for high office. (The IRS only allowed him to claim part of the cost of those ads as business.)

After a couple of losses, he was elected governor of Georgia in 1966. He campaigned on a shoestring, but he was a household word, having threatened with a .38 and ax handles blacks who tried to enter the Pickrick after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed.

Yes, pistol and clubs. Bad as today's racist politicians are, those days were really ugly.

Interestingly enough, considering the recent suit by the Justice Department to outlaw Georgia's system of run-off elections, Maddox was elected governor thanks to that law. He came in second in the Democratic primary to an old-line moderate (and just ahead of a newcomer, Jimmy Carter). He won the run-off -- then lost the general election popular vote to a Republican whose racism was more of the country club sort than the ax handle sort. But many liberals, refusing to go with the lesser of HTC evils, or unsure which that was, wrote in a third candidate (the Democrat Maddox had beaten). So the Republican lacked a majority. The legislature therefore chose the governor. It was predominantly Democratic, and chose Maddox.

Maddox moderated a little in office, as the Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act worked their magic on the South, but he never amounted to anything again. He was elected lieutenant governor in 1970 but lost every endeavor after that. The last I heard of him till this year was when he went into show business as half of a white and black minstrel type act. This year he ran for governor again. He came in fifth in a field of five in the Democratic primary, with 3 percent of the vote.

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