One of those defining political moments for me was in the late 1960s. Georgia Public Television had a panel of all of the candidates running for governor. The mix was incredible. There was one Republican, Bo Calloway, during the years when a Republican had little chance of gaining office. There was a Black Democrat, C.B. King from Albany who probably had an equally miniscule chance at that time. There was a socialist, And there were other democrats, including Lester Maddox. And finally there was a Nazi, J.B. Stoner (literally – he ran as an American Nazi- and he got 10,000 votes!) . It was a fascinating array.
For those who do not remember, Lester Maddox had been elected in a previous gubernatorial bid against Howard “Bo” Calloway . In the primary many Republicans had crossed over to vote for Maddox as opposed to the incumbent Ellis Arnall, figuring that he would be the easiest to beat. There was a runoff in the primary and again as a result of the Republican crossover Lester Maddox won.
Republican Bo Calloway won more votes in the general election, but at that time the State legislature selected from the top two candidates, and since it was overwhelmingly Democrat, they selected Lester Maddox. The Republican crossover backfired.
Lester had achieved some national notoriety for standing up to federal officials who wanted to force him to integrate his restaurant. He became symbolized by the ax handles he distributed to ward off those the unwelcome.His defenders contended that his real enemy was an intruding federal government forcing local businesses to comply with rules from Washington and crushing states rights. But most saw Maddox as the supreme symbol of the southern bigot- George Wallace (not the comedian) without the class.
This Public Television Panel was after Maddox’s term as governor, which was surprisingly peaceful and even progressive on some fronts. He appointed more African Americans to state government positions than any other governor before him, including the first African American to head a state department (the Board of Corrections), the first black GBI agent, and the first black state trooper.
The microphone was on for the opening comments of Nazi, J.B. Stoner.Stoner blasted the state of affairs peppering his remarks with “niggers” and “Jews” so frequently that was all I heard. He leaned on both elbows with a little confederate flag sticking out of his coat pocket.
The other candidates sat unaffected by the racist tirade, but Lester Maddox interrupted the moderator. He said that the other candidates, as much as he may disagree with them, were acting in a civil manner and did not deserve to share the stage with the frothing J.B. Stoner. The moderator did not know how to respond, or implied that all candidates deserved to be heard.
Maddox restated his offense at Stoner and said that either Stoner would leave the stage or he would. Again the moderator acted indecisive or stunned. At that point Lester Maddox stood up, removed his lavaliere microphone and walked off the set.
Lester Maddox, the generally perceived racist, was the only one to stand up to the absolute racist. I have had a warm spot in my heart for him ever since.
In politics things are not always what they seem.