Photo credits: The Associated Press
Lester Maddox (former governor of Georgia) was acquitted of all charges on April 20, 1965, after threatening three young Black seminary students with a pistol for trying to enter his racially segregated Atlanta eatery. After just 47 minutes of deliberation, the all-white jury returned a not guilty judgment.
Three Atlanta University Center ministerial students named George Willis Jr., Woodrow Lewis, and Albert L. Dunn met for lunch at the Pickrick restaurant on July 3, 1964, just one day after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, prohibiting racial segregation in public accommodations such as restaurants and hotels. “You no good nasty devils!” yelled the owner, Lester Maddox (above), before they could even enter. “You scumbag Communists!” “Get the hell out of here or I’ll murder you,” he said as he drew out his revolver and aimed it at them, according to the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).
Rather than assist the three unarmed customers who were being held at gunpoint, white restaurant clients retaliated by seizing “pickrick drumsticks,” pick handles that Maddox hung on his restaurant wall to scare Black neighborhood members. The three Black males were then chased out of the restaurant and into the parking lot by Maddox and a group of white patrons, who threatened them with violence.
Maddox then claimed falsely that he had drawn his weapon in self-defense. No reports or evidence suggested that the young Black students were anything other than customers trying to dine at the Pickrick legitimately, or that they had endangered him in any manner.
White Americans from all across the nation flocked to Maddox’s support when he was arrested and freed on $1,000 bail, praising his open disobedience of the Civil Rights Act and illustrating that adoption and implementation of the new legislation would need much more than a presidential signature. People put up advertising to raise money for his defense fund, and the restaurant observed a spike in white customers. Maddox even started selling autographed “pickrick drumsticks” as a keepsake.
Even while Maddox awaited trial, the Pickrick continued to refuse to serve Black community members. He promised to shut the restaurant before serving Black guests, and he did so in February 1965, after a federal district court found him in civil contempt for violating the Civil Rights Act.
Maddox took advantage of his enhanced prominence and wide white support for his segregationist beliefs after his acquittal for threatening the young Black men by running for Governor of Georgia the following year. He won because of the KKK’s support. Maddox advocated a racist, segregationist agenda throughout his period in office, vehemently resisted integrating Georgia public schools, and refused to allow Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to lay in state following his killing in April 1968.
Maddox was still a proponent of racial segregation in 2001. “I want my race to be saved and I think that virtually everyone else wants their race to be kept as well,” he stated in an interview, the EJI reports.
Segregationists like Lester Maddox, who were elected and backed by the majority of white Americans, acted as private persons and at the highest levels of government, using violence and criminality to resist the civil rights movement and target the brave activists who ignited it.