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Cities: Americus

Lester Maddox Supports Segregation

In this WSB clip from Thursday July 29, 1965, the Atlanta segregationist Lester Maddox makes a brief stop in Americus to address a crowd of 250 white citizens in a local recreation center. After a brief scene that shows an incarcerated African American man, white officers, and various scenes from Americus, Maddox appears. He begins by calling attention to his support of segregation in the South. He asks the audience to speak out in favor of segregation while refraining from violence. He minimizes the efforts of Civil Rights Movement organizers by calling them "communist agitators" and "government agents."

Maddox had become well-known as the owner of the Pickrick Cafeteria in Atlanta, which he opened in 1947. Rather than serve black citizens, he closed his business in 1964 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act that desegregated all public facilities. In 1966, Georgia voters elected him governor.  He served in this position until 1971, when he became the state's lieutenant governor.

Maddox is a symbol of the effective ways in which segregationists, like civil rights activists, also could galvanize popular support through the media. He highlighted his down-home, ordinary, working-class southern roots in newspaper columns and televised appearances, which helped propel him to political and business success. He tapped into many southern whites' fears of eroding states' rights, Communism, and criminal black populations. To working-class whites who resented the defeat of the Confederacy by the Union during the Civil War, or who felt threatened by the growing economic and political power of African Americans, Maddox's support of segregation may have at least assured them that to be white meant to be superior to black people.

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Discussion Questions

1. What does Maddox's term "agitators" say about his sense of American identity? In the 50s and 60s, were other groups besides black people excluded from the definition of American identity?

2. What changes did whites who opposed segregation fear? How did pro-segregation whites organize to stop the Civil Rights Movement in Georgia?

3. Read the story on the Freedom on Film Atlanta page entitled Lester Maddox and the Pickrick Restaurant. Maddox used various symbols and rituals - a wishing well, baseball bats, a mock funeral - in order to visually express his position on segregation. What symbols and rituals did the civil rights activists develop in kind? Hint: see the Freedom on Film Albany pages.

4. In the 1930s, the African American poet Langston Hughes wrote stories for The Chicago Defender in which the homespun character he created, Jesse B. Semple, discusses race relations in America and life as an ordinary black man in Harlem. Listen to actor Ossie Davis reading one Hughes's "Simple" stories, and discuss how Jesse uses humor, common sense, and indirection in order to talk about race, class, and gender.

Take it to the Streets!

Take a walk with your classmates and teacher around your school. Identify as many symbols of your school and community that you can. How are these symbols meaningful? If you could change any school symbol or ritual, which one would it be and why? Write your thoughts in one or two paragraphs.

Watch an episode with your classmates and teacher of one of the following television shows from the 50s and 60s: Leave It to Beaver, Father Knows Best, I Love Lucy, or Bewitched. How are American families in these shows depicted compared to those in family sitcoms that you watch? What do the patterns that you find say about how American identity has been represented on televison? Write a short essay analyzing these patterns and the reasons for them.

Look at images and descriptions of African Americans and Latinos in your local newspaper. What patterns in reporting about them do you see? Do the reports reinforce stereotypes about these groups (as lazy, dangerous, ugly, for example), or do they offer dignified images? What do the patterns you find say about improvements in racial attitudes since segregation? Write a short essay analyzing these patterns and the reasons for them.

Writer: Lauren Chambers  
Editors: Deborah Stanley and Diane Trap 
Researchers: Lauren Chambers, Aggie Ebrahimi, Courtney Thomas, and Professor Barbara McCaskill       
Web Site Designer: William Weems     

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