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BBQ and the Confederate flag: Maurice Bessinger dies at 83

BBQ and the Confederate flag: Maurice Bessinger dies at 83

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Maurice Bessinger

Maurice Bessinger, gestures while talking to reporters at a news conference at his barbecue restaurant in West Columbia, S.C., Friday, Sept. 22, 2000. Bessinger at the news conference asked the several major retailers to restock their shelves with his barbecue sauce. (AP Photo/Lou Krasky)

A West Columbia restaurant operator known as much for his politics as his barbecue sauce has died.

Lloyd Bessinger said his father Maurice Bessinger was 83 when he died Saturday in Lexington. He had been at the Carroll Campbell Center for Alzheimer’s Care about six months.

Lloyd said his father had not been active in managing the Piggie Park Enterprises restaurant company for about seven years.

Maurice Bessinger took down the giant U.S. flag that was a symbol of his restaurant in West Columbia after the state Legislature in 2000 agreed to a compromise to remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the Statehouse dome. Bessinger replaced the banner with a large South Carolina state flag and a Confederate banner.

Smaller versions of the state and Confederate flags went up at his other restaurants around Columbia and the state, including at the small Piggie Park at John C. Calhoun Drive and Russell Street in Orangeburg.

The headlines made by Bessinger, who was not new to controversy in business and politics related to his stated segregationist views, ultimately led to businesses such as Walmart deciding not to sell Bessinger’s barbecue sauce. He fought a losing court battle with the businesses for years afterward.

During the height of his battle over being rejected nationally, Bessinger was defended by South Carolinians and organizations such as the Rivers Bridge Sons of Confederate Veterans Camp 842.

Bessinger said his protest was based on lies about the Confederate flag used in the debate over the banner. “I stand with the truth, no matter what comes,” he said.

Controversy surrounding Bessinger subsided somewhat over time as the debate over the flag moved into the background, periodically resurfacing amid a continuing NAACP boycott of the state over the compromise that left the Confederate banner being displayed on the Statehouse grounds.

Son Lloyd Bessinger told The Associated Press that the Confederate flag was removed from the final two restaurants last year. He said most of the flags had been taken them down about a year earlier.

The Confederate banner that flies at the Orangeburg Piggie Park location has a different story. It is situated at the site of a marker erected by the SCV’s Rivers Bridge Camp to mark the location of Union Gen. Sherman’s crossing of the Edisto River during the Civil War. The memorial occupies about 120 square feet and is on property deeded by Bessinger to the SCV chapter.

The memorial and the flag have been a source of controversy locally in a related issue over plans to change the intersection at Russell and Calhoun.

Bessinger’s further connections to The T&D Region include working in his early teens at his father’s restaurant, Joe’s Grill, near Holly Hill.

In a 2001 story about brothers Maurice and Melvin Bessinger, The Post and Courier told the story of how the two came to be in the same business while being opposites politically.

The brothers built their wealth from their father Joseph James Bessinger’s mustard-based sauce. The older Melvin, who died in 2012, said the only thing he had in common with his brother was a last name and parents.

The story goes that their father traded a mule and a cow for $50 or $75 to buy a weigh station between Charleston and Columbia. Both brothers recall never having shoes or enough to eat. They said they were raised not to discriminate and played with black children.

The truck stop near Holly Hill soon turned into the barbecue joint, Joe’s Grill. On days the University of South Carolina and The Citadel played football, the place was packed. Politicians commuting to the Capitol often stopped by.

Melvin then went off to World War II. Maurice, seven years younger, learned the business, going in at 5 a.m., stoking the fires and cooking. Eventually, Maurice also went off to fight, in Korea. He returned from the Army with $600 to open the first Piggie Park restaurant in Charleston. Meanwhile, Melvin ran Joe’s Restaurant, his dad’s place, until the interstate came along in the late 1950s and traffic on U.S. 176 vanished.

In 1961, Melvin and his other younger brother, Thomas, opened Piggie Park West in West Ashley. By then, Maurice, who had moved his operations to Columbia, was an ardent George Wallace supporter. He went to court to uphold his right to deny service to blacks, saying it was not about race or racism, just “the right of a small businessman to select his customer.”

“You can’t be a racist and a Christian, and I am a Christian,” Maurice told The Post and Courier.

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