Alas, Poor Lester, I Knew Him Horatio

I posted comment to another blog that chose to obliquely defame the memory of Georgia's late governor.

I need to disclaim that I am a big fan of The General, such a big fan, in fact, that I will be adding him to my blog roll immediately. His satire is sharp, intelligent and gut busting funny. I cannot recommend him highly enough.

That having been said, he has chosen to satirize the late Lester Maddox. Now, the governor ranks high on any list of American political leaders deserving of commentary, satire and ridicule. This I cannot argue. His politics, though complicated, were reprehensible, his conduct unforgivable. All historicizing aside, I feel safe in presuming that the General never met the late governor. I did, more than once and never in a political capacity.

I had coffee with him in a tiny house in Cobb County, now since demolished. I shook hands with him and chatted with him as a friend of a friend with no agenda other than convivial conversation. I found him to be quite unlike his historical characterization. I posted the following comment to the General:

By a strange twist of fate, I dated the granddaughter of one of Maddox's best friends for more than a year. Strangely, she was unaware of the fact that 'uncle Lester' had ever been involved in state politics. He was simply a friend of the family, one of Cobb County's old guard. I met the man twice. He was sharply intelligent and remarkably literate even in his old age.

What struck me most about him, even knowing his history as I did, was that he did not come across as the history books had portrayed him. He was not the angry sort. He was quite polite, reserved and, though I had a black friend with me on one of the occasions on which I spoke with him, evidenced no bigotry whatsoever.

Perhaps this was simply old southern courtesy, the desire not to make a fuss when a guest in the home of another. Perhaps he had changed his ways in the years since his tenure as governor of Georgia. Perhaps he was too old to care.

The facts, in many respects, speak for themselves. He ran and won office on a states' rights platform, the same platform that won Reagan many southern votes in the 1980's. He handed out axe handles to his white restaurant customers and poured corrosives into the pool at the hotel and diner he owned in order to deprive black customers of access,

Via that same token. as governor, he forcibly integrated hiring practices in his state and integrated the Georgia civil service despite the protests of dozens of his subordinates. He hired more minorities, blacks in particular, into the Georgia's government workforce than any governor in the history of the state.

On the two occasions, and the total of fifteen minutes, I spent with him, broaching such topics seemed rude. I made small talk with him as if he was any other lifelong friend of my girlfriend's grandfather. Something in me cannot reconcile history's view of him with the frail and clever old man that I met.

Perhaps I am deluded, bamboozled by the etiquette of an antiquarian. Perhaps he was a product of his age, a true believer in states' rights whilst not a bigot, in the manner that Confederate fetishists wish. Most likely, history has not been entirely fair with him, nor I honest in my interpretation and the truth lies at some nebulous point in between.

Point being, I've met the man and I'm confident most others that would comment here have not. History is neither fair nor accurate. Lester Maddox, while no hero of mine, I can say with certainty, will never be fully understood.

And that's the whole point.

My meeting the former governor did not change my opinion of him nor of my state's history. It did, however, change my opinion of history as a concept.

There is much more than what is written in educational texts, so much more than was ever committed to print. When I am old, historians will write at length about the man that I met and that they never shared time, let alone coffee or conversation, with. I cannot claim that that does makes me more knowledgeable about him than future historians. It does mean, however, that I have a unique perspective on him and that, in the end, is what history really is, perspective.


Rusty said...

My grandfather grew up with Lester Maddox. They graduated from Tech High School (later merged into Grady) the same year.

I last saw him at my grandfather's 85th birthday. As a historic figure, he's one of the most complicated in Georgia's history. As a person, he was never anything but nice to me.

waldo said...

Great letter to the General. I've bookmarked your blog.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

"that, in the end, is what history really is, perspective."

Mmmhn. Very wise you are, Luke Skywalker.

And now this is known to you, it is, then so should you be slow to write it as it unfolds before you.

"History is a set of lies, agreed upon." - Napolean

RawkStahr said...

I remember that old little house and how, towards the end of his life, he erected that huge sign in memory of his recently-deceased wife. I believe the sign stayed up until he died and the house was condemned. I was always touched by that, even though I thought it was the doings of a crazy, lonely old man.

That being said, I knew a girl in high school who visited him rather frequently and when I asked her once about his past bigotry she replied, "People change as they get older and he has, in fact, changed.I've talked about it with him and he says he's misunderstood [now]."

Take it for what it's worth, but I just wanted to say that I concur with your blog.

I kinda miss driving by that unkempt, little house...