Thursday, May 4, 2017

The StriKKKe zone, part 2: Lester Maddox swings and ...

After my last blog about Democrats in the South, some friends chimed in. "Lester Maddox is a great example," said one. Another said, "To think that we lived through these events, and they're now considered history!"

So I remembered Lester Maddox and considered the ways he personifies the dissolution of the Democratic Solid South.

I lived through Lester Maddox, but not in the way some of my Georgia friends surely did, particularly ones who lived in Atlanta, the stage of Maddox's racist living theater.

I grew up in Chattanooga. Atlanta was a few hours' drive away--a drive that got quite a bit shorter after I-75 was finished--but it was just far enough away that my family only went there once a year, at Christmas time, to shop. On one of these occasions I took $27.10 worth of allowance money from my first busted piggy bank to Atlanta and spent it at FAO Schwarz on German- and British-made medieval miniatures. I learned early on that the North Pole was actually global commerce.

I also am ensconced in white privilege, but for some reason have always felt --without really being aware what it was--that it was a candle that couldn't burn down quickly enough for the good of the human race. Given this, and given also my childish sense of Atlanta's magic, it is no wonder that Lester Maddox's assault on both ideals is seared in my memory.

July 4, 1964. Newspaper front pages across the country blazed with an AP photo of Maddox--with a pistol--and his son--with an axe handle--threatening an African-American man, who is walking away from them. The accompanying story would have told how the black fellow went to eat at Maddox's restaurant, but Maddox prevented him with his armed intervention in the parking lot. It was then Maddox became, to me, one of the irreducible, comic-book villains of the American drama.

Lester Maddox, in post-Internet parlance, had gone viral. But I didn't know the half of it.

It is instructive at this long remove to look at the phenomenon again, starting with the picture. Notice the microphones and the writing pad along the right side of the picture. Look at the guy that Maddox and his son are threatening. Hands on his lapels, straightening his jacket, turning to the reporters, and saying ... what? I'm thinking it was along the lines of "Don't worry. I'll be back."

The media was there because they'd apparently been tipped off that something was going to happen. It was July 3, 1964, the day after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had gone into effect. Maddox, already at this point twice a losing candidate for mayor of Atlanta, was an unabashed and outspoken segregationist. He had used newspaper advertising for his restaurant, the Pickrick, to promote his anti-civil rights views. The restaurant was an obvious target for a legal, Civil Rights Act desegregation bust.

The next day, July 4--the day that his picture went viral in newspapers coast to coast--Maddox held a rally attended by 11,000 people who came to hear him and other segregationist firebrands. Among others, Maddox invited George Wallace of Alabama (who described the Civil Rights Act as "the most monstrous piece of legislation ever enacted") and Alabama KKK Grand Dragon Calvin Craig.

Maddox, together with another Atlanta restaurateur, sued to challenge the constitutionality of the Act. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy moved the suit quickly to a three-judge trial, which was decided unanimously against Maddox in late July. He could no longer legally bar customers according to their race. Though he appealed, the Supreme Court did not grant a stay on the injunctions.

Maddox closed his restaurant rather than serve blacks. He also turned it into a Mecca of segregationist kitsch, selling among other things axe handles--popularly known as "Pickrick toothpicks"). Also, because this was a presidential election year--with the perpetrator of the Civil Rights Act, Lyndon Baines Johnson, pitted against Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, who opposed the Act as Federal overreach--the Democrat Maddox delighted in breaking party ranks by selling"Goldwater '64" bumper stickers and cans of "Gold water" soda.

In December the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Civil Rights Act, and Maddox--after a few twists and turns to evade the law--permanently shut down the Pickrick. But his fight, and the fight of segregationists in the South, was far from over. As Kevin Kruse observes in White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, "the Civil Rights Act did not significantly weaken the power of segregationists. By making manifest their darkest predictions about the supposedly coercive nature of liberal politics and the 'tyranny' of a national government running roughshod over the rights of individual businessmen, the enactment and enforcement of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 paradoxically strengthened the politics of white resistance throughout the South." [p. 229]

Maddox probably never voted Democratic again--on the national level: In 1968 he supported Alabama segregationist George Wallace's run as American Independent Party candidate; in 1976 when Wallace dropped the AIP banner to run as a Democrat, Maddox himself picked it up and ran; in 1980 he endorsed Ronald Reagan. 

But that was the national Democratic Party, where liberals ruled. At the state level Maddox was far from done with being a Democrat. In this, the twilight of the Solid South--when winning the Democratic primary was tantamount to winning the general election--things were changing, but old habits and entrenched organizations died hard. To be a Democrat was still for many to smell the campfires before the Confederate high tide at Gettysburg.

Building on his status as a racist, states'-rightist folk hero and endorsed by the KKK, Maddox ran for governor of Georgia in 1966. His main opponent in the Democratic primary was former governor Ellis Arnall, who was considered a progressive--because of the anti-political-machine reforms enacted during his term--as well as a liberal in race relations--partly because he accepted the Supreme Court's mandate to end Georgia's white-only Democratic primary. Maddox called Arnall "the granddaddy of forced racial integration." As for the national party, Arnall made no bones about the fact that he was a Democrat from top to bottom: "I am a local Democrat, a state Democrat, and a national Democrat, and anyone who doesn't like it can go to hell." [p. 231, The Politics of Change in Georgia: A Political Biography of Ellis Arnall, by Harold P. Henderson]

Arnall was the top vote-getter, with almost 30%, but due to the presence of other candidates (mostly a state senator named Jimmy Carter), he was thrown into a runoff with second-place Maddox. During the primary campaign and the run-off, Arnall looked past Maddox to what he considered his likely general-election opponent, Goldwater-Republican Bo Callaway.

As is often the case in one-party states with open primaries, Republicans crossed over to vote in the Democratic primary for the candidate they thought had less of a chance against Callaway. That candidate was Maddox. The tactic worked--at least in the short run--when Maddox pulled off an upset against Arnall.

However, liberals and blacks got a measure of revenge against the Republican in the general election by writing in Arnall, which prevented Callaway from reaching the 50% that the law required. The choice between the top two vote-getters went to the legislature, which, heavily Democratic and bound by a loyalty oath, made Maddox governor.

(Once governor he reportedly did a fair job--meaning he wasn't as racist in action as he was in words. Somehow we're supposed to feel good about that? And, a propos of nothing, here's a nice article in media res--Nov. 29, 1966--from the Harvard Crimson of all places by the euphoniously-named Atlanta native Boisfeuillet Jones, Jr.)

To give a sense of how much Democrats dominated Georgia, the Republicans in 1966 limited their campaigning to the gubernatorial race and ran zero down-ballot contests for statewide positions. Although Callaway was just as opposed to integration as Maddox, he was a Republican, so Maddox wasted no time comparing Callaway's campaign to Sherman's March to the Sea. 

But it was Goldwater himself who gave the perfect, clueless postscript to the election, trying to distance himself from attitudes that his own policy positions exacerbated. In an interview with CBS newsman Walter Cronkite shortly after the legislature had chosen Maddox, Goldwater voiced his regret that the decision hadn't gone to Callaway, calling Maddox "a fellow that belongs back in the Stone Age" and saying it was too bad the legislature didn't send him back to selling hot dogs. When told it was fried chicken, he said, "Is that right? And baseball bats."

With that it's back to you, pitcher Curt Schilling. History is more complicated than baseball. Quite often, it seems, winners don't really win, and sometimes nobody wins bigger than a loser. If you want a good example, look at the history of the South after the Civil War. Another thing: the game never ends. Now there's a Democrat running for Maddox's old office of governor who wants to be the first black female governor in American history. 

So, as Georgia favorite son Martin Luther King, Jr.,--whom Governor Maddox denied the privilege of lying in state in the State Capitol after King's assassination--said, "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Also, for Curt Schilling's benefit, its speed is like a reverse changeup on steroids--a pitch that starts slow, slow, slow, but when you're 11 years old, it SuddenlyZoomsBy. Racists always swing at it ... and miss it. Every time. It doesn't matter what team they play for.

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