Politician and restaurant owner Lester Maddox was born in Atlanta. After dropping out of high school, he had a variety of jobs but never seemed content working for someone else. In 1947, Maddox opened the Pickrick Restaurant, which featured home cooked food served in a cafeteria-style setting. Located near Georgia Tech, the Pickrick was so successful that it expanded a number of times until it was one of the largest restaurants in Atlanta.
After the Brown v. Board of Education decisions in 1954 and 1955, Maddox became an outspoken foe of integration and the federal government. Thereafter, he had three unsuccessful tries for political office - running twice for mayor of Atlanta and once for lieutenant governor. Though opposed to integrating schools, it was the public accommodations provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that propelled Maddox to national attention. Brandishing a pick handle, Maddox personally turned back blacks who tried to eat at the Pickrick. Losing in federal court, Maddox closed the Pickrick, declaring in a newspaper ad “THE PICKRICK WILL NEVER BE INTEGRATED!”
To many white Georgians, Maddox was now a hero for standing up to the federal government. In 1966, he ran for governor in the Democratic primary against Ellis Arnall and Jimmy Carter, coming in second to Arnall. In the subsequent run-off primary, Maddox beat Arnall. In the 1966 general election, Maddox faced a tough challenge in the person of Republican Howard “Bo” Callaway. Callaway won a plurality of votes cast in the general election, but a small write-in campaign for Ellis Arnall kept Callaway from receiving a majority of the total votes cast. At the time, Georgia’s constitution provided that if no candidate won a majority in the general election, the task of choosing the governor from among the candidates would go to the General Assembly. With only 29 Republicans in the 259-member General Assembly, legislators elected Maddox by a vote of 182-66. The fact that there was no governor at the time House and Senate Democrats caucused and chose their leaders allowed legislators to break the tradition of the governor naming the speaker and committee chairmen - an important factor in the General Assembly’s subsequent rise in independence from the executive. Also, the legislature’s election of Maddox made him the first native-born Atlantan to serve as governor of Georgia.
As governor, Maddox surprisingly appointed many blacks to state boards and commissions and is remembered for a populist administration - one in which he regularly scheduled “People’s Day” at the capitol so that anyone could come in and talk with him. Prohibited by Georgia’s constitution from running for a second term, Maddox won election in 1970 as lieutenant governor (1971-75) - making him the first former governor to serve subsequently as lieutenant governor. In this capacity, he presided over the Georgia Senate during the gubernatorial administration of Jimmy Carter. Throughout Carter’s term, Maddox was a frequent critic of Carter’s legislative efforts - especially the Reorganization Act of 1972, which restructured the executive branch of state government. In 1974, Maddox lost in a bid to reclaim the governor’s chair, and in 1976 he collected 170,000 votes in his race for the U.S. presidency as the nominee of a faction known as American Independent Party.
Maddox ran for governor once more, in 1990, but lost and retired from political life. He died in Atlanta on June 25, 2003.