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Jewish World Review Jan. 18, 2002 / 5 Shevat, 5762

Matt Towery

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And I thought explaining Jane Fonda was tough -- SOME time back, I wrote a column suggesting that those who were justifiably hurt by Jane Fonda's Vietnam era actions find it in their hearts to understand that she should be viewed in light of her more recent good works and newfound faith.

The column understandably evoked a visceral reaction. But this column is about the inside view, and sometimes reality requires understanding and forgiving what's happened in the past.

Just as the Fonda column roused the wrath of those who suffered from her actions in the '60s, the individual for whom I will argue similar understanding and forgiveness will likely create a comparable stir from an entirely different group of readers.

Most people who endured the turmoil of the 1960s will remember his name. For those who watched him walk off the set of then-nationally prominent talk shows, or who recall his close relationship with legendary Alabama Governor George Wallace, the name of former Georgia Governor Lester Maddox stirs a memory of some sort, be it good or bad.

In a time when almost all restaurants in the South were segregated, Lester Maddox, who, as a result of severe poverty, had to leave school at an early age to support his family, became an easy target as the owner of such a restaurant. Maddox was balding, bespectacled, loud, opinionated, and -- even for the 1960s -- often viewed as "politically incorrect."

America was treated to media portrayals of Maddox holding a famed "ax handle" as he refused to serve African Americans at his restaurant. Just a few years later, the populist Democrat won a controversial race for governor of his state under a quirky system that deprived the largest vote-getter, the polished Republican and later Secretary of the Army Bo Callaway, of victory. The political and business establishment in both Georgia and Washington shuddered at the thought of four years of Lester Maddox as a governor.

Recent media reports have quoted the now aged and infirm former governor as saying he has "no regrets" for standing up for "the principle of private property rights." A story by one of the nation's top AP reporters noted that the same Maddox who believed he had to fight for the principle of "self-determination" for his own establishment had, some 20-plus years earlier, lost his job as a plant supervisor because he refused to follow the orders of supervisors to fire two African-American workers.

"I would have had to lie and betray my principles ... I wouldn't do it ... so they basically forced me out. I went from a good paying job, back to having nothing," Maddox said this week.

More than one reporter has noted that Maddox as governor, for all his silliness, such as riding a bicycle backward, shocked everyone by appointing a significant number of African Americans to positions in Georgia's government, where, previously, practically none had existed.

In light of all of Maddox's years of seemingly contradictory statements and actions, it seemed proper to finally test the heart and not the mouth of this man who once was a nationally famous -- or infamous -- name.

In an interview last week, I relied on my rarely used legal training to ask Maddox two pointed questions and one hypothetical. This was the type of questioning to which he is unaccustomed and which brought about feelings never before expressed by Maddox.

"Are you a racist or have you ever been?" Maddox, tearfully looking down at an uneaten plate of food, seemed so genuinely taken aback that he quietly laughed as he bowed his head and answered. "I don't have a racist bone in my body ... how can anyone but God decide who we are, what color, what personality, how tall or short," he said.

I then offered the hypothetical.

"When you were governor, if a young black child had approached you with a tear in his eye and asked 'Mr. Maddox, why don't you like black people?' what would you have said?"

With his head, bandaged from cancerous lesions, again bowed, he quietly responded, "I would have said, 'I love all people, I've never hated anybody in my life.'"

"But Governor Maddox," my imaginary youngster continued, "you wouldn't let my mother and father eat in your restaurant, and my mother came home and cried. What should I tell my mother?"

"Tell your momma that I'm sorry that she was hurt and that she cried, but I was fighting for her and you and all white people and black people for the right that was guaranteed under our Constitution."

I had never before heard Lester Maddox express these feelings.

"But Governor Maddox," I asked as this young African American, "Do you love me?"

"Why sure I love you ... I love all people ... You be the best person you can be ... and you'll make a lot of people happy now, and make yourself happy when you grow up."

Then, my second pointed question: "Several years later, you had an establishment in downtown Atlanta that served African Americans (while it was still unpopular in many circles to do so). What would you have said if your white supporters had told you they would shut you down if you kept welcoming African Americans at that establishment?"

"I would have told them I'll serve who I want, nobody will tell me I can't serve blacks."

No, Lester Maddox, with his tumultuous past, will never apologize, as did Wallace in his last years, for standing up for what he believed to be his constitutional rights in an era long passed. Given the startlingly progressive record he had toward African Americans as governor, many of his friends wish he would just say, "I apologize."

But to do so, says Maddox, would mean that he had been dishonest in his self-taught constitutional interpretation some 40 years earlier. And the answers he gave last week help to explain why some of Maddox's most loyal admirers are, ironically, African Americans of his era.

Maddox says he will soon pass on with just about as little wealth as when he entered the world. That's what honest politicians end up with. The proof of that honesty will likely be borne out in the throngs of African Americans who will turn out to carry him to his final resting place.

And I thought explaining Jane Fonda was tough.

Comment on JWR columnist Matt Towery's column by clicking here.


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© 2001, Creators Syndicate