Ask anybody outside Georgia who Lester Maddox was and you’re likely to get a blank stare. I’m not from Georgia but I remember the attention he got in the late 1960’s. Aside from Alabama Governor George Wallace, Maddox was the best known rear-guard defender of racial segregation in the South at that time.
Mr. Maddox and his family operated a modest restaurant called the Pickrick adjacent to the Georgia Tech campus in Atlanta. The fried chicken must have been good, because he prospered. He gradually became interested in politics and began to express them bluntly.
Maddox was incensed when the Civil Rights Act became law in 1964. Among other things, the Act outlawed racial discrimination in “public accommodations.” He did not welcome black people as customers, and when three black men tried to enter his property in July of 1964, he reportedly waved a pistol at them and shouted: “You no good dirty devils! You dirty Communists!” He believed that as owner of the restaurant, it was his prerogative to decide whom he wanted to serve. The pick handles that were initially decorations in his restaurant became symbols of his defiance, and he sold them as autographed “Pickrick drumsticks” in his souvenir shop.
Maddox consistently defended his stand as an issue of property rights. He gained national attention, and the mainstream media were not amused. Time called him a “strident racist” and Newsweek upped the ante, calling him a “backwoods demagogue out in the boondocks.”
But he had struck a chord with the folks in Georgia, many of whom felt they were being dictated to by Northern liberals. They warmed to Maddox because they felt he understood them and would stand up for them. After unsuccessful runs for mayor of Atlanta and Lieutenant Governor, Maddox was elected governor of Georgia in 1966.
He served a single term as Governor, all that was allowed. He didn’t accomplish much in office, which would please most of us libertarians. He appointed several black people to state offices. He raised state salaries and attracted economic development, leaving office with an 84% approval rating.
What are we to make of Lester Maddox from almost fifty years out? I would have wanted nothing to do with him. Like almost everyone else in our time, I cringe at his strident refusal to serve blacks. I agree with Ayn Rand’s description of racism as “the lowest, most crudely primitive form of collectivism.”
What about his assertion of property rights? Was it right for the government to interfere with his choice of customers? That interference is usually based on a stolen concept, “public accommodation,” which tries to disguise the fact that restaurants are private property. Freedom of association should not be limited to our personal relationships. Business owners should get to decide whom they want to deal with.
But discrimination has a price. Any business owner who chose to exclude blacks as customers these days would cut off a large potential customer base: not only blacks, but also the majority of whites who would find the policy offensive. Very few business people would choose to exercise their freedom to practice racial discrimination and those who did would be unlikely to prosper.
Racism should be opposed with non-coercive tactics like speaking, writing, boycotting and shunning. These can be very effective. And we should not hesitate to speak out against “reverse discrimination” as when a university sanctions a black students’ association but bans a white students’ association.
We should also be careful about what we call racism. Most people like to congregate with friends who are more or less like them in terms of culture, education, religion, age, etc. Often times these preferences cause social groups to end up divided along racial lines. I see nothing wrong with that outcome.
Was Lester Maddox a hero? Walter Block might say that. In his charming book, “Defending the Undefendable,” he argues the case that the most disreputable among us, including pimps, prostitutes, and presumably racists as well, do us all a favor when they successfully assert their property rights. When bigots are free to speak their minds or control their property or engage in unsavory but non-coercive transactions they act as vanguards of freedom, safeguarding the liberties of us more moderate folk.
Lester Maddox: hero or bum? Some of each, I daresay.