Jul 7, 2022 - News

Remember when... a prison break led to prison reform

Gov. Lester Maddox and First Lady Hattie Maddox pose in the governor's mansion in 1968. Photo: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Floyd Jillson Photographs Collection.
Gov. Lester Maddox and First Lady Hattie Virginia Maddox pose in the governor's mansion in 1968. Photo: Kenan Research Center at the Atlanta History Center. Floyd Jillson Photographs Collection.

Welcome to Remember When, a semi-regular feature where we revisit the largely forgotten strange, uplifting, pivotal or baffling moments from Atlanta’s history.

In April 1967, four inmates escaped from a prison work camp in Wilkinson County.

  • Their destination: an open house at the Governor’s Mansion in Atlanta to ask Gov. Lester Maddox to improve conditions at the Central Georgia prison.

Details: After waiting in line with "something like 4,000 folks," according to TIME Magazine, a woman whispered to the first lady that the men — identified in one report as Booker T. Cary, MacArthur Davis, Douglas May and Henry Lewis Jackson — were escaped convicts. And one of them was her son.

  • The staunch segregationist governor invited the men, all of whom were Black, inside and heard accusations of broken toilets, overcrowded barracks and bored guards threatening to shoot inmates in the legs.

Maddox — best known for using an ax handle to run off Black people from his Home Park restaurant — called for "the most thorough investigation in the history of the state," per an April 17, 1967 article in the Macon News.

  • "A [n-word] will tell a lie," R.T. Bridges, the warden of the county-run camp, told the newspaper. "Let 'em investigate. Send the governor. I'm ready for him."

Wilkinson weeks later opted to shut down the camp and transfer prisoners elsewhere rather than pay for upgrades. In the following months, state officials would order other county camps to make improvements.

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