The blunt-spoken Williams, a fearless and confrontational activist who worked closely with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., in the civil rights struggles of the 1960’s and later served a decade in the Georgia legislature, told a group of students at the University of Georgia that Maddox was no longer the fiery segregationist they had read about in history books and had a much better record when it came to appointing African-Americans than any of his predecessors.
“Listen to Hosea,” he exhorted the crowd of about 200 students at a rally protesting the Georgia state flag. “I haven’t endorsed anyone,” continued Williams, “but I think the truth ought to be known about Lester Maddox. People can change.”
Williams, who was born to blind parents but raised by his grandfather before leaving home in his early teens after escaping a lynch mob pursuing him for being friendly with a white girl, saw in Maddox what others had failed to see — namely, that the man who had once adopted an ax handle as his symbol of defiance at the height of the civil rights movement in the South had mellowed considerably.
Williams, who surprised many by endorsing Ronald Reagan against Jimmy Carter in 1980, had long believed that Maddox had been unfairly portrayed as a high-octane racist by the national media. “Paradoxically,” he observed in 1983 while serving as a state representative, “Lester Maddox did more for black folks and poor folks than any governor in my lifetime.”
As governor from 1967-1971,Maddox had hired the first black officer in the Georgia State Patrol and had named the first African-American to ever serve on the Georgia Board of Corrections.
Recognizing that young African-Americans were fighting and dying in the Vietnam War like everyone else — if not in disproportionate numbers — Maddox also appointed thirty-eight blacks to the state’s county draft boards, when only two had ever served before. “He didn’t have to study it or anything,” recalled longtime NAACP chairman Julian Bond, who was then a state senator and had first approached Maddox about the appointments. “He just did it.”
Though more than a quarter century had passed since he chased three black Georgia Tech students from his Pickrick Restaurant in Atlanta, the national media insisted on dwelling on Maddox’s controversial past during the 1990 Georgia primary.
Maddox refused to become their fodder, nimbly deflecting their questions. “I don’t think the racial issue ought to be part of this campaign,” he said. “And I don’t think it will be unless it is promoted by the media itself.”
Despite his segregationist past, the 74-year-old former governor’s comeback attempt that year, coming some fourteen years after waging his last political campaign — a forlorn bid for the presidency on the American Independent Party ticket in 1976 — was vintage Maddox.
As in previous campaigns, he insisted on doing everything himself, including writing his own speeches and press releases, stuffing envelopes, and nailing up signs reading, “This is Maddox Country!” while crisscrossing the state in a 1986 station wagon.
He enjoyed every minute of it.
Gutsy Lester Maddox out-hustled his opponents during that primary campaign, despite having a bad heart and recently recovering from a bout with cancer. Though no longer occasionally riding a bicycle backward around the state Capitol, Maddox was still as witty and colorful as ever.
When asked his age, he smiled and said, “Just 26.” He then paused momentarily before adding, “short of a hundred.”
Vastly outspent by his four opponents in the Democratic primary — a field that included Lt. Gov. Zell Miller, who raised a record $3.9 million in the primary, and former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young — Maddox never had a chance. He polled only 31,403 votes, or 3 percent, in the July 17 primary.
Maddox, who died seven years ago this month, never regretted waging what amounted to his “last hurrah” that year. “The 1990 governor’s race was something I had to do,” he said. “I wasn’t sure if I could measure up to the younger politicians who were in their prime, but I had to try. I just had to try.”