Maurice Bessinger, who died Feb. 22 at 83, was a white supremacist and segregationist who believed slavery was good for black people and lobbied to keep the Confederate flag flying above the State House.
Bessinger’s vocal racism spanned more than half a century. Back in the 1950s and ’60s he banned black people from his barbecue restaurants (as did many white business owners in the South, to be sure). Civil rights attorney Matthew Perry took him to court in 1967, and Bessinger lost in an 8-0 ruling at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Time didn’t temper his racism as it did some other white Southerners. Decades later, in 2000, as legislators discussed pulling the Confederate flag off the State House dome, Bessinger took up the cause, replacing the U.S. flag with the Confederate one atop his restaurants. At the time, he was still distributing pamphlets in his restaurants espousing slavery.
The list drags on. Bessinger was once president of a group called the National Association for the Preservation of White People, according to John Monk, who wrote a clear-eyed account of Bessinger in The State this week. Another tidbit unearthed by Monk: In the 1960s, Bessinger tried to prevent Stevie Wonder from singing at the University of South Carolina, writing to the president of the university, “You may not agree with my feelings that jungle music is for jungle people, but the hatred and upheavals caused by recent forced race-mixing must concern us both.”
His obituary online at the Thompson Funeral Home website is drawing comments like this: “Maurice was a forthright supporter of our Southern heritage and the SCV [Sons of Confederate Veterans]. He spoke to our SCV camp during the height of his persecution by the politically correct media. He took a stand for right, sacrificially and unselfishly. Heaven is now richer with his presence.”
Of course, Bessinger was also a highly successful barbecue magnate. He opened his first drive-in barbecue restaurant in West Columbia in the mid-’50s, and from there grew an empire.
But clearly, the man overshadowed his barbecue. That’s why we’re talking about his politics this week instead of his pulled pork or his mustard-based sauce. And that’s why, despite having written about food for Free Times since 2008 and lived here since 2001, I’ve actually never been to Maurice’s Piggie Park.
Will I ever go? That depends on something Free Times contributor Shani Gilchrist addressed in an October story. Since 2010, Bessinger’s children and grandchildren have taken over running the restaurant. They’ve played up the barbecue, while ignoring the politics. They quietly removed most of the Confederate flags from Piggie Park; they told WLTX in 2010 it was due to “the high cost of dry cleaning.”
But as Gilchrist detailed, Bessinger’s clan hasn’t done anything to repudiate Piggie Park’s racist past. Bessinger granddaughter Carolyn Shvetz did tell Gilchrist some acknowledgment of the restaurant’s past was eventually coming.
In a statement released to news outlets this week, Bessinger’s family spoke mainly of Bessinger’s war service and of the ravages of Alzheimer’s on the man, writing, “Our family is very thankful for the memories and lessons he left us. We are grateful that he is done with the pain and sadness of this disease and is now in the presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” All Piggie Park locations will be closed Thursday, they announced on the restaurant’s website.
Surely there’ve been other racist barbecue joint owners. And plenty of white Midlands business owners excluded blacks from their businesses during the 1960s. But Bessinger was uniquely vociferous in his hatred. What comes next should be interesting to see.
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