COLUMBIA, SC — Maurice Bessinger, who was as famous for his barbecue shops and sauces as he was for his diehard segregation stands, has died at 83.
A Korean war veteran, a gentlemanly demeanor, a businessman who grew a restaurant business that employed 200 employees, a devout Baptist who supported missionaries abroad, Bessinger in many ways had a background as American as the finger-licking tasty Southern food his establishments were known for.
"I'm just a fair man. I want to be known as a hard-working, Christian man that loves God and wants to further (God's) work throughout the world as I have been doing throughout the last 25 years," he told a State reporter in 2000.
But he was also known for his deeply divisive racial stands – he believed slavery was good for black people, for example – and his losing stand in a landmark civil rights lawsuit brought by famed South Carolina lawyer and later federal Judge Matthew Perry. His racial beliefs, though outmoded in today’s modern world, were once common among many Southern whites.
In 2000, after The State newspaper disclosed that Bessinger was distributing pro-slavery tracts at his Maurice’s Gourmet Barbecue headquarters in West Columbia – under the shadow of an enormous Confederate flag he flew outside – people began boycotting his eateries. Stores and the U.S. military yanked his well-known mustard barbecue sauce from their shelves. He would claim the boycott cost him millions.
At the time, Bessinger – who denied in interviews that slave-owners treated blacks cruelly – was also distributing pro-slavery audio tapes and gave customers a discount if they bought his literature. South Carolina had “biblical slavery,” Bessinger claimed, which was different than other kinds of slavery.
In addition to triggering a boycott of Bessinger products, the disclosure of his pro-slavery views prompted SCANA to ban company vehicles from being parked in his restaurant’s parking lots.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Bessinger was a crusading white supremacist, doing everything he could to deny blacks equal rights. He put signs in his stores saying blacks weren’t welcome, He believed, he said in interviews, that any form of race mixing might lead to impure dilution of white blood.
"YOU are WHITE because your Ancestors believed in SEGREGATION!" reads an old tract that promoted a group Bessinger once was president of: the National Association for the Preservation of White People.
In the 1960s, Bessinger tried to prevent blind black singer Stevie Wonder from singing at the University of South Carolina. "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," Bessinger wrote the then-USC president.
In 1963, Bessinger became angry at a Spartanburg restaurant owner who had integrated his restaurant. Bessinger met with other restaurant owners to force the man to resign as president of the S.C. Restaurant Association.
In July 1964, Bessinger - who at that time owned four Piggie Park restaurants - stood in the door of one of his stores to prevent a black minister from entering. Bessinger would allow blacks to buy food to take out, but not to eat in his restaurant. African-Americans represented by then civil rights lawyer Matthew Perry, took him to court.
In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Bessinger , 8-0.
In 2000, Bessinger told a State reporter he had no regrets about fighting that lawsuit.
"It is really a constitutional right - whether a man has the right to run his business without governmental interference," he said then.
In 2004, Bessinger contributed $1,000 to a candidate for the U.S. Senate who openly advocated secession – just as South Carolinians had done in 1860 in an act that triggered the Civil War.