ATLANTA — Lester Maddox, the restaurateur whose segregationist defiance propelled him into the governorship in a fluke election in the 1960s, died Wednesday. He was 87.
Maddox, who had battled cancer since 1983, cracked two ribs earlier this month when he fell at an assisted living home where he was recovering from surgery. He later developed pneumonia and died in an Atlanta hospice, family members said.
A high school dropout born in a working-class section of Atlanta, Maddox gained national notoriety for chasing blacks from his Pickrick fried chicken restaurant in Atlanta in 1964, the day after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law. He closed and then sold the Pickrick rather than serve blacks.
But fears of racial strife during his 1967-71 governorship proved unfounded when Maddox pursued a policy of relative moderation on race. He had been chosen as governor by the Legislature after no candidate received a majority of the votes cast in the 1966 election.
“Gov. Maddox had the unique ability to connect with everyday Georgians regardless of their background or station in life,” Gov. Sonny Perdue said. He praised Maddox as “a dedicated public servant” who “loved this state and her people.”
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, a veteran civil rights activist, gave Maddox credit for appointing blacks to positions they had never held before and launching prison reforms, but he said Maddox’s legacy is stained by his refusal to acknowledge segregation was wrong.
“If Lester had said, ‘I was wrong,’ I believe the vast majority of African Americans would have said, ‘OK, we forgive you,”‘ Brooks said.
Though Maddox once brandished a pistol at civil rights protesters in his restaurant, he began his term in office with a vow that “there will be no place in Georgia during the next four years for those who advocate extremism or violence.”
As governor, he took on prison reform and teacher pay, and he appointed black musician Graham Jackson to the state Board of Corrections.
But in 1968, Maddox refused to close the Capitol for the funeral of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., which drew thousands of mourners to Atlanta’s streets, and he expressed anger that state flags were being flown at half staff.
Barred by law from succeeding himself as governor, Maddox won the office of lieutenant governor and put his energy into fighting the new governor, future President Jimmy Carter.
Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, extended condolences to Maddox’s family. “He worked hard for the state for many years, making himself remarkably accessible to the people of Georgia,” the former president said.
An irrepressible, flamboyant man, Maddox often seemed more caricature than flesh. His slick pate and thick glasses were fodder for cartoonists. He was known for quaint sayings and outrageous gestures like riding a bicycle backward.
“How you, chief?” was one customary greeting. Another: “It’s great to be alive. A lot of folks aren’t, you know.