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Posted: May 15, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Where’s Lester when I need him?

I'll never forget Lester Maddox, 75th governor of Georgia, presiding in that capacity from 1967-1971. ‘Twould be presumptuous to speak for everyone else, but I can't help but think that anyone who actually met the man at more than a superficial political meet-and-greet would agree.

They broke the mold after Lester Maddox was put together. Some folks think it's a good thing, and some don't, but for sure there'll never be another Lester Maddox.

I met Maddox in a most unusual manner in a time and space that no longer exists. He was visiting in tiny Greensboro, Ga., back in the mid-1960's as that little town celebrated a Greek immigrant who'd made a difference in that little burg: Charlie Poulos.

Maddox was running for governor, and Greensboro was strategically located between Atlanta and Augusta on U.S. Highway 278. In 1965 Interstate 20 had not yet been completed; Highway 278 was the major artery for east-west traffic. And that vital thoroughfare would be shut down at Greensboro's intersection of Broad and Main streets for the "Charlie Poulos Day" parade, thus ensuring a large crowd of onlookers - and voters.

In 1965 I was not yet in high school, and watched the parade from the sidewalk fronting a huge brick building - McCommons' "big store" - which still stands on the southwest corner of Greensboro's main intersection.

Now, the plot thickens...

Greensboro had two barber shops serving white folks in those days of segregation. A very old black fellow, Rayfield Williams, made a living shining shoes at those barber shops. Everybody in Greensboro knew Rayfield Williams because he rode a bicycle everywhere he went.

As it happened, the enigma that was Lester Maddox was a man of many faces. A self-proclaimed defender of segregation, he once denied blacks access to his Pickrick Cafeteria near Georgia Tech by brandishing a Pickrick axe handle. That turned out to be for show. Afterward, Maddox sold the popular restaurant to his loyal black employees.

And, who knew? Maddox could ride a bicycle - backwards.

That's right.

Lester Maddox, candidate for governor, won most everybody's vote in Greensboro on "Charlie Poulos Day" by riding Rayfield Williams' bicycle while sitting backwards on the handlebars.

He worked the crowd, of course. He would extend his hand, shake a stranger's vigorously while looking them straight in the eye, saying, "It's great to see you... again! "

Maddox won the governor's office in most unusual fashion, and when seated did more for Georgia's black population than any other governor in history. The hard-line segregationist turned out to be a progressive, to everyone's surprise.

One thing I fondly remember about Maddox was how much he hated those who use power or position to unfair advantage.
In the 1960s, prior to the completion of I-95, Highway 301 was the major thoroughfare used by Yankees traveling to Florida. Ludowici, in Long County, gained notoriety for speed traps conducted solely to stimulate the economy. So infamous were the bloodsuckers that the AAA Travel Service included printed warnings for their customers concerning the Ludowici speed trap.

Gov. Maddox had giant billboards erected at Long County's borders warning motorists of the speed trap. He also posted state troopers to guard the signs until the rotten practice ended.

Well, that was then. This is now...

Two Sunday afternoons ago, as I returned from a speaking engagement in southeast Georgia, the Twiggs County Sheriff's Department nailed me in a speed trap. They hid an officer with a laser gun on a bridge overlooking the exit from a tedious one-lane construction zone, with three chase cars at work shooting fish in a barrel on the northbound side of Interstate 16.

I don't think the officer who pulled me over has yet begun to shave. I asked him if he knew who Maddox was, and was met with a blank stare.

My court date is June 23. I plan to be there, and I'm taking my vintage Pickrick axe handle. It's wooden, so it should get through any metal detector.

Maddox passed away in 2003, but I know he'll be there with me.

Nat Harwell is a Covington resident. His column appears Sundays.

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