Category Archives: People

It’s a Gas, Gas, Gas

When news outlets first reported the Colonial Pipeline software cyberattack last weekend, they warned that if the pipeline didn’t come back online in the near future, gas prices would in all likelihood be rising.

From that news, it took virtually no time for people to assume that must mean that there was no gasoline now, nor would there ever be again. Gasoline as we had known it was gone, never to return. Therefore, we should all go out and fill up our cars at the same time—RIGHT NOW!!!!—whether you had any gas in your car or not. Maybe you filled your car up just yesterday, or maybe you wouldn’t need gas for another week. No matter! Go now and top it off! Wait hours if you must, but go get gas now, now, now!!!

We thus ensured that we turned a mild inconvenience—higher gas prices—into a full-blown disaster.

You may recall that at this same time last year, during the pandemic, people rushed out to buy toilet paper in mass quantities—not because there wasn’t any, but because social media rumors spread that toilet paper might become scarce. So the obvious thing to do was to run out and panic buy as much as you could, RIGHT NOW!!

People got into fistfights over toilet paper. Viral videos of check-out-line shaming lit up the internet, as people bought 198 rolls at once.  People who couldn’t find toilet paper were afraid to eat Varsity chili dogs. Other unfortunates began ordering bidets. Panic ensued.

What is it about the human condition that makes us act this way? And if you think this is a recent phenomenon or needs social media to happen, watch the classic “Twilight Zone” episode, “The Monsters are Due on Maple Street,” first broadcast in 1960.

I’m working in metro Atlanta this week, and people are lined up to buy gasoline. Those of us who are old enough to remember the gas crisis lines of the 1970s found it eerily familiar.

As a historian, I started thinking about a time in this country when gasoline was actually rationed and wondered, what would we do if that happened again?

With America’s entry into World War II in December 1941, the Federal government recognized immediately that certain consumer products that Americans took for granted would either become very scarce or completely inaccessible if it didn’t step in and restrain the American consumer. Rubber, sugar, alcohol, cigarettes, and gasoline topped the list.

Why rubber? Most of America’s rubber came from the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), and the Japanese invasion of those islands severed America’s supply. Without rubber, tires couldn’t be produced that would become essential in the war effort. As American car manufacturers shifted to production of planes, tanks, and Jeeps, rubber rationing began, followed closely by gasoline. The thinking was, if Americans didn’t have gasoline, they wouldn’t drive, thus decreasing the need for new tires and rubber.

To further decrease the rubber demand, no new cars were manufactured after January 1, 1942, while all automobile racing ceased. There was no Indianapolis 500 from 1942 through 1945.

We should take comfort that Americans 80 years ago didn’t like the idea of going without gasoline any more than we do now. The government first tried making gasoline rationing voluntary in the early months of 1942, and that worked out about as well as you’d imagine.

So on May 15, 1942–ironically, 79 years ago this week—gasoline rationing began in 17 Eastern states and was in effect in all 48 states by the end of the year.

How did it work? Local rationing boards—over 5,000 of them across the country—oversaw the process and reported to the Office of Price Administration (known as the OPA) in Washington. Depending on your job, you received a colored sticker or card with a letter printed on it that you then placed on your windshield.

Most Americans got “A” cards, signifying the lowest priority and only 3 to 4 gallons of gas a week. Those in the military and industry got “B” stickers and up to 8 gallons a week. Doctors and others deemed essential to the war effort received “C” stickers, truckers got “T,” while those deemed most essential—clergy, police, firemen, mail carriers, and civil defense workers, got the coveted “X” stickers and unlimited gasoline. It didn’t take long for most Americans to start referring to the OPA derisively as “Only a Puny A-card.” 

Lest we think the Greatest Generation was somehow more virtuous, it’s worth noting that there was a brisk underground market for upgrading one’s sticker for the right price. Rationing stamp books were also bought and sold illegally for those who found it hard to get things like sugar, meat, flour, and tobacco. And it won’t surprise you that 200 Congressmen tried to give themselves “X” stickers, but the ensuing outrage cancelled that idea, even without Twitter. Some things never change.

Thinking about all of this as I watched people lining up at Racetrac to panic buy before the last drop of fuel disappeared from the planet—or until the Colonial Pipeline flows once again—I couldn’t help but wonder how contemporary Americans would react to being asked for the kind of sacrifice that prevailed in World War II.

In our highly polarized country where distrust of the government is legion, it’s a given that gas-rationing would become highly politicized. One can imagine local rationing boards in some states simply refusing to meet, refusing to limit the amount of gas to people in their communities, and inviting their residents to drive down to the local QT and demand a full tank, regardless of their sticker. Gas equals freedom!! Let’s pause for a moment to imagine the viral videos of confrontations between gas sellers and consumers that would roil the Internet. Can you envision NASCAR shutting down or Americans going without new cars for three years?

I also pondered future shortages created by cyberterrorist attacks. What if the supply lines for whatever smart phones are made of are suddenly strangled? What about the life-giving transmission of coffee beans to Starbucks and elsewhere? If the world’s hops supply is interrupted (gasp!), would the beer pipeline shut down? Can you imagine the lines and fistfights at the Golden Gallon if that happens?

I know, I know—c’mon Stan, don’t joke about this. Cyberterrorism is real, it’s nothing to laugh at. To quote Abraham Lincoln, criticized for making jokes in cabinet meetings during the Civil War, I laugh because I must not cry.

Not to mention, when the great beer-rationing crisis comes, I’m sure I’ll get Only a Puny A-card. That’s when I’ll break out my government-rationed crying towel.

I’m making merry only because these and similar catastrophes are bound to happen—and when they do, we, all by ourselves, with no help from any outside source, will make it much worse than it should be. We always do.

Nancy Wilson Ross put it best: “When man conquers space, his ancient, universal, and perpetual  problem will remain the same as it has been from the very beginning—to conquer himself.”

The Complexity of the Past: Teaching, Not Celebrating

Do we study and teach history to celebrate the past? To condemn it? Or to gain a greater understanding of the people and events that created the world in which we live? In this Dispatch Dr. Deaton discusses the challenges of teaching the complexity of our shared past, and the role of history in creating a better future.  

The Enigma of Lester Maddox

Earlier this week, my colleague Lisa “War Eagle” Landers, the GHS Education Coordinator, sent me a letter she had received from a middle school teacher, who asked:

“Do you know why Lester Maddox, once elected governor, chose to appoint so many African Americans to government positions given his strong record on segregation? It would seem he would favor an all-White government. I have done a lot of research on Lester Maddox trying to find that information with no luck. I have to think it was for self-gain.”

It’s a great question. Lisa asked me for a response, and I thought I’d knock out a quick reply. The answer turned out to be a bit more complicated than I thought.

It was one of the great ironies in Georgia history: Maddox had run for governor in 1966 on a segregationist, states-rights platform—despite & because of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—but then once in power he appointed more Black Georgians to positions in state government than any previous governor. He also desegregated the Georgia State Patrol, no small thing all by itself.

Every available source on Governor Maddox tells us these facts, but as I prepared my response for Lisa, I realized that the usual go-to sources don’t directly answer the question as to why. What was Maddox’s motivation?

Lester Maddox was the original Donald Trump. He campaigned as an outsider who loathed the establishment. He was a businessman with no political experience. He behaved in diametrically opposite ways from more button-downed establishment politicians. He hated the press but loved publicity. He made deliberately provocative statements to rev up his base. He labeled political opponents as not just wrong but as un-American socialists and communists. And no one gave him a chance of actually becoming governor.

As UGA history professor Numan Bartley explained in a 1974 Georgia Historical Quarterly article:  “Sophisticated observers found it difficult to take Maddox seriously, given his reputation for antics and colorful fanaticism, but, like Eugene Talmadge before him, Maddox had a genuine appeal for the white common folks.”

Sound familiar?

Maddox, unlike Trump, came from very modest circumstances. He quit high school during the Great Depression to help support his family. As an outspoken segregationist, he had twice run unsuccessfully for mayor of Atlanta and Lt. Governor of Georgia. But Maddox had made a name for himself as the owner of The Pickrick cafeteria near Georgia Tech, where he steadfastly refused to serve Black customers, even after the passage of national Civil Rights laws that required him to do so. In July 1964 he even chased several Black Tech students out of his business with an ax handle, which soon became one of his popular public props. Maddox eventually sold his restaurant rather than integrate.

All of this, of course, made Maddox wildly popular with the many White Georgians who fiercely opposed the Civil Rights movement. When he ran for governor in the 1966 Democratic primary against the much more moderate Ellis Arnall, Maddox, according to Bartley, “projected a certain charisma with his earnest blend of social segregation and religious fundamentalism.”

Maddox held nothing back.  In the words of the New York Times, Maddox’s openly racist platform “included the view that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, that integration was a Communist plot, that segregation was somewhere justified in Scripture and that a federal mandate to integrate schools was ‘ungodly, un-Christian and un-American.’” The Ku Klux Klan wholeheartedly endorsed him.

Less than two years after the passage of two of the most far-reaching pieces of social legislation in American history, angry and resentful White Georgians were in no mood for moderation. Maddox won 64 percent of the rural vote, but only 41 percent of the urban, much as Trump would 50 years later. And like Trump, Maddox overwhelmingly won White working-class voters (70 percent in urban areas) but only about a quarter of more affluent Whites, and only 0.3 percent of the urban Black vote. In the general election, Republican Bo Callaway outpolled Maddox but didn’t gain a majority, throwing the contest into the Democratic-controlled House, where the ax-handle-wielding Maddox won easily.

As with the presidential election 50 years later, the establishment across the nation staggered in disbelief that the man pilloried as an outspoken clown had triumphed. Time magazine labeled him a “strident racist.” Newsweek dismissed him as a “backwoods demagogue out in the boondocks.” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said Maddox’s election made him ashamed to be a Georgian. Two years later, Governor Maddox refused to honor the martyred King by allowing his body to lie in state in Georgia’s Capitol, nor did he attend his funeral or lower state flags to half-mast.

Georgians and national observers braced for the publicity-seeking Maddox to roll back the clock and begin an all-out war of Massive Resistance to Civil Rights. But that didn’t happen.

The New Georgia Encyclopedia summarizes Maddox’s accomplishments thus: “Maddox proved reasonably progressive on many racial matters. As governor he backed significant prison reform, an issue popular with many of the state’s African Americans. He appointed more African Americans to government positions than all previous Georgia governors combined, including the first Black officer in the Georgia State Patrol and the first Black official to the state Board of Corrections. Though he never finished high school, Maddox greatly increased funding for the University System of Georgia.”

How to explain the enigma of Lester Maddox?

The traditional sources list these facts but offer little else. To gain more insight, I called two of Georgia’s most knowledgeable political insiders: Jim Galloway, a 40-year veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the former lead writer and founder of the AJC’s Political Insider blog; and Keith Mason, Governor Zell Miller’s chief of staff.

They both readily agreed that whatever else Lester Maddox was, he was an astute politician with good instincts who hired highly qualified and capable people to fill administrative posts. The best of these was undoubtedly a teacher from north Georgia named Zell Miller, hired in 1969 to serve as Governor Maddox’s executive secretary, as the Chief of Staff position was known at that time.

It was Miller who pushed Maddox toward progressive policies regarding race and higher education, and Maddox was smart enough to listen. Galloway also suggested that however racist Maddox may have been at heart, he did not want to be remembered as a leader who took Georgia backward. Instead, looking toward a political future beyond the governorship, Maddox worked hard to build an image that was at odds with everything he had done to win the office. He was savvy enough to know that, though he may not like it, Black voters would play a prominent role in Georgia’s future, and he wanted to be able to point to substantive racial accomplishments during his administration. It turns out that even the brazenly outspoken Lester Maddox didn’t want to be remembered as nothing more than a bigot.

But that was Maddox the politician. Maddox the man changed very little. He endorsed George Wallace for president in 1968, called MLK an “enemy of our country” after his assassination, and ran for president himself in 1976 against Jimmy Carter (who Maddox called the most corrupt man he’d ever met). Though he never changed, Georgia did: voters rejected Maddox’s repeated attempts to regain Georgia’s governorship.

Till the end Lester Maddox denied to all who would listen that he was not and had never been racist in his life. Jim Galloway said that in every conversation he had with him, Maddox pushed back hard against any notion that there was anything to atone for. Still, he remained unapologetically committed to segregation till the day he died on June 25, 2003: “I want my race preserved, and I hope most everybody else wants theirs preserved. I think forced segregation is illegal and wrong. I think forced racial integration is illegal and wrong. I believe both of them to be unconstitutional.”

In 1999, the State of Georgia dedicated the Lester and Virginia Maddox Bridge, located on Interstate 75 in Cobb County, near Truist Park. Not surprisingly, the name has come under fire in the last year in the wake of the movement to remove controversial statues and names of White supremacists from public landmarks.

Who was Lester Maddox? Was he the man with the ax-handle who chased Black patrons from his restaurant? Or the man who broke the color barrier at the Georgia State Patrol and insisted that police officers address Black Georgians with respect? 

Zell Miller, himself no stranger to charges of political inconsistency, believed that, “No man in Georgia public life has been more maligned, more misrepresented, or more misunderstood than Lester Maddox.”

Georgia is once again in the national spotlight: For the first time in its history, Georgia recently elected a Black man and a Jewish man to represent the state in the US Senate. Georgia also recently passed a controversial voting law that its advocates say promotes election integrity but has brought national scrutiny amid charges that the law aims to suppress minority votes.

Modern Georgia, like the legacy of Lester Maddox—indeed, like all of our history—is more complicated than we think.

Two Giants of History Remembered: Phinizy Spalding & Carl Vipperman

Dr. Deaton remembers two UGA history professors–both of them outstanding scholars, teachers, and gentlemen–who profoundly influenced his decision to become a historian. Learn more about the lives and careers of Phinizy Spalding and Carl Vipperman in this Dispatch. 

Podcast S4E6: The Stamp Act, Houdini, & Spike Lee

Stan talks about This Week in History (the Stamp Act, James Jackson, Spike Lee, the first Black graduate of West Point, the Masters, Tomochichi, & Houdini), says goodbye to a pathbreaking historian and actor, spotlights new additions to the Off the Deaton Path bookshelf, and welcomes the opening of Major League Baseball.