Lester G. Maddox, 87, a Georgia restaurateur who drove blacks from his business with ax handles and parlayed the resulting publicity into political power, becoming in 1967 the state's last openly segregationist governor, died June 25 at a hospice in Atlanta after a fall while recuperating from intestinal surgery. He had pneumonia and prostate cancer.
Gov. Maddox, a Democrat, served four years and, barred by state law from a second consecutive term, ran successfully for lieutenant governor in 1971. He served under Gov. Jimmy Carter (D), with whom he often feuded, and then lost a race to succeed Carter. Carter's ascension was seen as a pivotal moment in Georgia's shift away from firebrand racial politics.
He tore into Carter during his 1976 presidential campaign, and Carter's spokesman, Jody Powell, responded in kind. "Being called a liar by Lester Maddox is like being called ugly by a frog," Powell said.
Gov. Maddox said his political career left him financially destitute and struggling for years to pay off hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign debt. In June 2001, a state Senate committee declined to change Georgia's pension law requiring a decade of service before providing a pension, a threshold the governor did not meet.
"If I had become part of the establishment, I would have come out of office without owing a penny," he told The Washington Post in 1977. "Politics is ugly, brutal, mean, yessir, it's been a disaster for me. . . . It's destroyed me financially. I've paid my price. I'll never go back to politics."
Gov. Maddox catapulted to infamy in 1964 while operating a chicken and burger restaurant in Atlanta at which he refused to serve blacks. He also drove them from his restaurant with a pistol and pickax in hand. He closed his business after a federal court ruled that he must integrate the facility.
Defeated several times for other political posts, he became a national name for his unyielding stance against integration.
Backed by the Ku Klux Klan and calling God his campaign manager, he defeated five other Democrats in the 1966 gubernatorial primary, but neither he nor the Republican opponent received a majority of the vote in the general election. The Democratically controlled legislature appointed Gov. Maddox to the state's top office.
There, he stunned many with a call for fairness and "peace and tranquility." He appointed blacks to important state offices and boards -- including the Board of Corrections -- raised teachers' pay and called for massive jail reforms after escaped black prisoners arrived at the governor's mansion to make their case against injustices.
A devout Baptist who neither smoked nor drank, he got the nickname "Lester the Puritan" for his campaigns against drinking and gambling. He also banned miniskirts from the state Capitol.
In a 1996 Associated Press interview, Gov. Maddox said his stance against integration was misunderstood by the media. He said his governing philosophy was based on the rights of the individual and keeping the federal government from intruding on state and local law.
"I think forced racial segregation was wrong," he said. "I think it was just as wrong to force integration."
If he had to relive the 1960s, he said, "I'd fight even harder."
Lester Garfield Maddox, an Atlanta native, was the son of a steelworker who lost his job during the Depression. Young Mr. Maddox dropped out of high school to work and later finished high school by correspondence.
At 19, he was a supervisor at Atlantic Steel Co. He recalled in interviews that he was fired for refusing to give pink slips to two black employees who were said to have spoken with union organizers.
He did defense plant work around Atlanta and tried without much luck to run a poultry farm.
His fortunes changed after he started Lester's Grill in Atlanta in 1944. The combination grocery store and eatery attracted huge crowds for its burgers, hot dogs and fried chicken. He also bought a drive-in facility near Georgia Tech called the Pickrick that later became the location of his showdown with black diners.
In 1957, he was defeated in a bid for Atlanta mayor against incumbent William B. Hartsfield and lost again four years later when a mass of black voters threw their support to another Democrat in the primary.
Another try for office, this time for lieutenant governor, was unsuccessful, but by this time he was a statewide name.
Taking advantage of a backlash against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he promoted his restaurant and his segregationist and anti-federalist views in prominent newspaper ads.
He rebuffed efforts to serve black students, calling them "no-good dirty Communists." He soon mobilized about 500 supporters to march and physically threaten blacks with guns and ax handles.
With a talent for publicity, he marched on the White House and the Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City in 1964. The next year, he erected a 20-foot-tall monument lamenting the "death of private property rights in America" and sold souvenir ax handles known as "Pickrick drumsticks."
He had a keen feel for populist rhetoric and behavior and refused to travel by means other than a station wagon.
Though Gov. Maddox did not have the support of the state's major newspapers, many observers believed Republicans voted for him in the primary because he was thought to be easier to defeat in the general election.
He ran in the general election against Rep. Howard H. "Bo" Callaway, a Republican who garnered about 3,000 more votes. Neither candidate won a majority, and Callaway's lawyers unsuccessfully challenged the constitutionality of the state electoral law that permitted the legislature to choose the winner.
Gov. Maddox's wife, Virginia Cox Maddox, died in 1997. Survivors include four children; 10 grandchildren; and 12 great-grandchildren.