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Lester Maddox Dead At 87

Lester Maddox, the restaurateur who became a symbol of segregationist defiance and then Georgia governor in a fluke election, died Wednesday, family members said. He was 87.

Maddox, who had battled cancer since 1983, cracked two ribs when he fell about 10 days ago at an assisted living home where he was recovering from intestinal surgery. He later developed pneumonia and was placed in an Atlanta hospice where he died, the family said.

"Gov. Maddox had the unique ability to connect with everyday Georgians regardless of their background or station in life," Gov. Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "Georgians have lost more than a former governor. We have lost a devoted family man, a dedicated public servant and a prominent citizen who loved this state and her people."

Maddox became famous in the 1960s when he closed and then sold his Pickrick fried chicken restaurant in Atlanta 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.

It began with an inaugural vow that "there will be no place in Georgia during the next four years for those who advocate extremism or violence."

Barred from succeeding himself at the end of his four-year term, Maddox won the state's second-highest office, and from the position as lieutenant governor battled the man who succeeded him as governor, President-to-be Jimmy Carter.

A bid to return to the executive mansion failed in 1974, and Maddox dabbled at real estate.

He tried a final comeback in 1990, but his years away from the public spotlight and a changing electorate left him fifth in a five-person race with just 3 percent of the vote.

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."

He won the hearts of many by opening the doors of his office and the governor's mansion to what he called the "little people." Twice a month he held a kind of people's court to hear the problems of the rank-and-file and offer advice and help.

At his final open house at the executive mansion, thousands turned out to bid Maddox farewell.

Maddox was born Sept. 30, 1915, in Atlanta. He was a school dropout who later took a correspondence course and opened a restaurant. It was through that restaurant, the Pickrick, that Maddox became nationally known for his outspoken opposition to integration.

In one incident, customers armed themselves with pick handles to bar blacks. Pick handles became his trademark, and later he sold them as souvenirs.

Maddox claimed he had nothing against blacks, just forced integration. In the end, he sold the restaurant rather than comply with the public accommodations section of the Civil Rights Act.

"As well as a constitutional human right to associate with whomever you please, there should be a corresponding right to disassociate if you please," he once said.

Maddox ran twice for mayor of Atlanta and once for lieutenant governor before capturing the state's highest office through a quirk in state law.

He won the Democratic nomination for governor in 1966 but trailed Republican Howard H. "Bo" Callaway in the general election. Write-in votes for other candidates prevented Callaway from receiving a majority, and the question was thrown to the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which picked Maddox.

As governor, Maddox interested himself in prison reform and teacher pay, and appointed black musician Graham Jackson to the state Board of Corrections - a high post for a black man at the time.

As his term drew to a close, Maddox challenged a constitutional provision barring governors from succeeding themselves. He failed, but managed to be elected lieutenant governor.

It was a classic mismatch: the liberal, polished Carter as governor and conservative, rough-hewn Maddox in the No. 2 spot. Said Maddox: "It's all right for a fellow to grow peanuts ... but people ought not to think like them. I don't know whether the man is sick, or just a plain fool."

In 1974, Maddox once again was eligible to run for governor. He lost.

The ex-governor flirted with national politics in 1976 when his old nemesis Carter ran successfully for president. As the presidential nominee of the American Independent Party, Maddox got only a handful of votes.

Later, he embarked on a short-lived nightclub comedy career with a black man he pardoned from jail while he was governor. They billed themselves as "The Governor and the Dishwasher."

Maddox's wife, the former Virginia Cox, died in 1997. They had been married for more than 60 years and had two daughters and two sons.

After she died, Maddox resolved to work to keep other marriages together, reasoning that if a few thousand dollars' worth of advertising could save one family, "then it's worth it."

"DEAR MOMS & DADS. Help Save Lives, Families and U.S.A. STAY MARRIED," said an ad that ran in March 1998 in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

By Dick Pettys

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