Friendship Bridges Racial Divide for 2 Longtime Civil Rights Foes
Early afternoon at the Varsity, and the seven-decade-old joint is jumpin’. Sharply dressed professionals, black and white, ease their sporty luxury cars in alongside the pickup trucks carrying country folks into the urban perimeter.
While some remain outside for the 1950s-style carhop service, inside, college students of all hues and a group of Japanese tourists join the lines for diet-defying chili dogs and piles of fries and onion rings, to be washed down with iced tea, orange drinks or the indigenous draught, Coca-Cola.
The scene, combining quaint tradition with a display of tension-free diversity, is the kind Atlanta wants the world to see this summer when this self-conscious city steps into the global spotlight as host of the Centennial Olympic Games.
In walks a stocky black man wearing dark sunglasses and mutton-chop sideburns. Busboys and fry cooks slip over for quick handshakes, and the manager gives him a hug as customers start looking up from their trays and nudging each other.
An entrance has been made by the Rev. Hosea Williams.
Three decades ago, he helped lead the integration of the city of Savannah, introduced night marches into the civil rights movement and became a fearless point man for the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s forays for integration across the South--most unforgettably, leading the 1965 “Bloody Sunday” demonstration at Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, where marchers were beaten and teargassed.
Nowadays, at age 70, he’s still a firebrand who has yet to meet a civil rights protest he didn’t like, whose acid tongue continues to blister old friends and new enemies, who keeps adding to an arrest record he proudly puts at 135.
Minutes later, a dervish whirls into the Varsity.
This man, shiny head bordered by grayish-white hair and sporting thick glasses, keeps up a rapid-fire repartee in his shrill voice--"Good to see yuh,” “Have a great day--if you don’t, it’s probably your own fault"--while backslapping, handshaking, bearhugging and lifting up old friends to show off his strength.
Lester Maddox is in the house.
Three decades ago, he became Georgia’s segregationist symbol, wielding a pickax handle against the inevitability of integration. Closing his fried-chicken restaurant in the face of orders to serve blacks, the political gadfly who had failed in two mayoral elections was elected governor in 1967 in what writer Marshall Frady described as perhaps the most “astral occurrence” of the region’s turbulent ‘60s.
These days, at age 80, he attends to his wife’s failing health and his own maladies, from cancer to heart problems, while periodically inserting himself into the news--there’s Maddox putting a coffin in his yard to criticize the Clinton administration’s health care plan, and here he comes at the head of Confederate Memorial Day parades in three cities.
After they’ve made their rounds and soaked in all the good wishes, the civil rights militant and the segregationist die-hard sit together at the same table, full of smiles and memories.
Because when all is said and done, despite their differences, they share a profound equality--both are men who are true, to a fault, to their own, perhaps unique dogmas.
They are Atlanta’s odd couple, reminders of a different time in this Olympic city--unwelcome reminders, to some.
Says Mayor Bill Campbell of Maddox, “For a long time, Atlanta and Georgia had to overcome this image of the governor riding his bicycle backward with a pickax, fighting integration.” And of Williams, the mayor says: “He was a warrior for civil rights and . . . he was a warrior for civil rights. That’s I think all I would say about Hosea Williams.”
Put it this way: Don’t expect to see the odd couple among the invited dignitaries at any Olympic ceremonies or galas.
Lester Maddox lives in a rambling ranch-style house on a 1.24-acre lot in an eastern corner of booming Cobb County. Among the many places he lacked political allies were zoning boards, and for years he was unable to sell while his neighbors became a gas station, a supermarket and a sandwich shop.
After taking a few minutes to slip on a jacket and tie--he won’t be around a photographer without them--Maddox conducts a tour of a hallway lined with photos of him with celebrities such as Johnny Cash and Danny Thomas, Georgia politicians and national leaders.
“There’s old ‘Tricky Dick,’ ” Maddox says of Richard Nixon. “What he did in Watergate was dumb. He made two people president--Gerald Ford, then Jimmy Carter.”
He pauses before a picture of Carter, who succeeded Maddox as governor and promptly called for an end to racial division while ostracizing Maddox, elected separately as his lieutenant governor.
“What I think about Jimmy is it’s great that you grow peanuts and you ought to eat them, but you ought not to think like them,” Maddox says. Eyes twinkling, he recalls attending Ronald Reagan’s inauguration: “I enjoyed seeing Reagan sworn in, and I got to see Jimmy sworn out, and I enjoyed that too.”
“There’s old Lightbulb Johnson,” says Maddox, who, as governor, picketed outside Lyndon B. Johnson’s White House. “He did more harm to this country than any other president. The Great Society was a destructive blow against the Constitution.”
Next, George Wallace, “my buddy” and a political hero when Wallace was making Alabama a ‘60s battleground for segregation. While Wallace has made amends for those days since, Maddox is unapologetic.
“He was either a liar then or he’s a liar now,” he says.
“I think forced racial segregation was wrong,” Maddox says. “I think it was just as wrong to force integration.” If he had to do it over, he says, “I’d fight even harder.”
He insists he was never anti-black, but was defending his individual rights and local law against the federal government. This year, he notes, he supported the longshot presidential candidacy of Alan Keyes, a black man, before switching to Patrick J. Buchanan. He believes a black conservative such as economist Thomas Sowell would be the best president to unite the country.
During his governorship, Maddox appointed more blacks to state offices and boards than all his predecessors combined, integrated the Highway Patrol and ended segregation of county voter registration lines and farmers’ markets.
Other hallmarks of his term include penal reforms, raising teachers’ pay, ethics reforms and opening up the governor’s office and mansion, which was alcohol-free during his term. At one of his Sunday “Little People’s Days,” he found himself greeting two escaped prisoners who came to tell him of atrocious jail conditions. Maddox swiftly ordered conditions improved.
“I want to get that into the history books, into the libraries,” says Maddox, who blames the news media for leaving him with the lingering image of pick handles and his stunt of riding his bicycle backward. “They just like to poke fun, ridicule. Never talk about the record.”
In one permanent sign of his disdain, Maddox’s official Capitol portrait includes a fish wrapped in an Atlanta Constitution newspaper.
He’s working on an autobiography, to be called “One of a Kind.” A summary he provides, with whole chapters devoted to railing against the media and the federal government, indicates that the book probably won’t solve what a 1960s independent biography titled “The Riddle of Lester Maddox.”
At an 80th birthday celebration last year hosted by Gov. Zell Miller, Maddox summarized: “I’m just Lester Maddox. That’s kept me in trouble most all of my life. And that’s what I want to be remembered for--being true or real as I can.”
In the storefront downtown office he shares with one of his seven successful children, an attorney, Hosea Williams sits at a desk with a wall of eye-catching photos behind him.
There’s Williams shaking hands with Reagan (Williams endorsed him for his promise of a King federal holiday) and with President Clinton. There are photos of King’s funeral procession after his 1968 assassination.
“Let me tell you, uh. . . ,” says Williams, closing his eyes and, for once, at a loss for words.
“Today, I have struggled. . . . I’m a very lonely man--very lonely as it relates to my peers. When I saw King lying on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, I said, ‘America, you sure done messed up now.’ That was the biggest disappointment of my life.
“King’s dream was turned into a nightmare. Not by racist white people, not by the white power structure, not by the white economic structure. . . .”
In his lengthy, winding soliloquies, there emerges a solitary theme--that he remains as the keeper of the faith, while King’s other followers became co-opted by the establishment that King was transforming. He refers to some as “house boys and girls,” an allusion to slave owners’ practice of allowing their favorites to stay in the plantation house.
From melancholy, he becomes animated as he recounts his entry into the service of King and the civil rights movement.
He grew up a poor, illegitimate orphan in tiny Attapulgus, Ga., where his early memories included the mutilation and burning of a black man wrongly accused of raping a white woman.
He fought in World War II, returning home with wounds suffered in Germany only to be set upon by angry whites when he inadvertently drank from the whites-only water fountain at a bus station.
He became active in the NAACP but was more intrigued by the Alabama activities of the preacher from Atlanta.
After hearing King preach, Williams organized a crusade for voting rights in Savannah and started night marches. He got drummed out of the NAACP leadership as too militant. Tears in his eyes, he went to Southern Christian Leadership Conference headquarters in Atlanta and found King and Ralph Abernathy there.
King welcomed him in.
The Savannah protests became raucous. Stores were burned, and, finally, Williams was jailed for 35 days. A bank president offered to bail him out if he’d stop the violent protests.
“I wanted to get out of jail so bad,” Williams recounts. “But you know, I mustered up enough guts to tell him, ‘If you get me out today, and they don’t integrate Savannah tonight, I’m going to lead marches again tomorrow.’ ”
King made Williams his field secretary in his strategy for negotiated settlements for civil rights. But there were those in the movement who felt that Williams was counterproductive, that his methods wasted resources. Eventually, after King’s death, he was ousted from the SCLC leadership.
Today, he says, affirmative action has become “the enemy of black progress.”
“All of us struggling to get into the economic arena. They open the gate a little and let two or three through, then close it again and use them as an example,” he says. “And mister, black people are worse off today than they were 30 years ago--drugs, crime, unemployment, teen pregnancies, all this accusing other people for their problems. . . .”
Williams, who also is working on his autobiography, has followed his own interpretation of King’s legacy, bedeviling Atlanta’s black leaders with sharp criticisms and setting off on demonstrations, small and large.
But besides the protests and news conferences, he has for more than two decades put on giant feedings for Atlanta’s homeless on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
“I am really struggling since his death to revive his dream,” Williams says of King. “I gave everything I had for the struggle of black people--except for my life.”
Wrapping up their chatfest at the Varsity, where they met for a photo session, Williams proudly tells Maddox that he’s lost 15 pounds in two weeks on a cabbage diet. Maddox advises the old marcher that the best thing to do is to take a walk every evening, even when he’s tired.
Williams shakes his head and grins, they clasp hands, and Maddox is gone to pick up his wife of 59 years from the doctor’s.