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Saturday, October 5, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Confederate flag still flies over Piggie Park

The Baltimore Sun

WEST COLUMBIA, S.C. — Inside his conference room at Piggie Park headquarters, beneath the faded portraits of Confederate generals, South Carolina's deposed barbecue king is in no mood for reconciliation.

Maurice Bessinger, 72 and unbowed, leans forward in his yellow Maurice's BBQ shirt and calls the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) a "terrorist group."

He says there is evidence that slaves enjoyed life in the South. He makes very clear that, in his mind, white Southerners were the best friends blacks have had — the best friends, he says, "in the history of the world." A visitor notes an exception: Bessinger's restaurants, which refused to serve blacks until the Supreme Court intervened in the 1960s.

Well, now, that's different, he says.

"I went to the Supreme Court to defend a freedom," he said, "a freedom to choose my customers the way I wanted to choose them."

Bessinger's approach to public relations — or his neglect of it — would be suicidal for most businesses. But in South Carolina, in the heart of the old Confederacy, Piggie Park Enterprises is turning a profit.

Not long ago, Bessinger's survival seemed less sure. His decision to hoist the Confederate battle flag over his restaurants in 2000 and to sell tracts defending slavery led Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and seven grocery chains to pull his top-selling barbecue sauce from their shelves.

Yet on a recent Thursday, the flag still was flapping over Bessinger's busy restaurant in the West Columbia suburb of the state capital. An all-white lunch crowd lined up for Big Joe Plates, Chopped Sauci Chics and other specialties slathered in his pungent, mustard-based barbecue sauce. Bessinger has opened three restaurants since the flag controversy, and two are in the works.

Sauce still on shelves

Elsewhere in South Carolina, more than 100 mom-and-pop stores, from beauty salons to tire shops, carry his sauce in defiance of the grocery chains. (He sold 96,467 bottles last year, according to an independent tracking company.) And Bessinger's Internet mail-order business, Flying Pig, is growing if still small.

Bessinger's defenders say he is an amusing, Scripture-quoting throwback to the Old South, less a race baiter than a harmless eccentric. Critics say his survival reflects something darker: a climate of racial hostility with roots as far back as the nation's founding.

"He wouldn't have the success he has here in any other state," said Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the NAACP's Columbia branch. The civil-rights group has urged tourists to boycott South Carolina because the Confederate flag, a symbol to many of the South's slave-holding days, still flies on the State House grounds. "He has a lot of friends who think just like he does."

Take Clyde Wilson, 56, a beefy fellow who enters Piggie Park with a baseball cap that reads "Let me call you sweetheart — I don't remember your name."

Bessinger barely has sat down to his plate of barbecued ham when Wilson approaches. "I'm proud of your business, sir," says Wilson, a gun dealer from Aiken. "The man's got the guts to stand up for his beliefs."

Another customer, Joel Sauls, a 36-year-old insurance salesman from Columbia, finds Bessinger's views "outrageous." Sauls' taste buds, however, are apolitical. "The food still tastes good," he says. "Elton John's gay, but I still listen to his music," he says.

Bessinger is no stranger to lost causes. In the 1960s, he managed the South Carolina presidential campaign offices of segregationist George Wallace.

Bessinger ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1974. He campaigned in a white suit and rode a white steed, an unmistakable symbol of segregation even if some thought it just made him look like Colonel Sanders.

But as his family's roadside barbecue stand blossomed into a multimillion-dollar business in this barbecue-loving state, he increasingly kept his views to himself. Blacks began eating at his restaurants. And they took jobs behind the counter.

By the late 1990s, his sauce, Carolina Gold, was selling in 3,000 grocery stores from New York to Tampa, Fla. He built a $2 million plant to fill orders for Wal-Mart, which was poised to take his sauce national.

Then came Jan. 17, 2000, the anniversary of the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Columbia was the only state capital to still fly the Confederate flag over the State House dome, and some 46,000 protesters descended on the building by the busload.

That summer, state lawmakers relented and moved the flag to a lower-altitude location on the grounds. In response, Bessinger raised the Stars and Bars over his eight Piggie Park restaurants in Columbia, declaring himself a defender of states' rights and Southern heritage.

The chains' decision to drop the sauce cost Bessinger 98 percent of wholesale sales and half his overall revenue.

He responded by self-publishing a book titled "Defending my Heritage: The Maurice Bessinger Story." He sued the chains. (His case is pending.) And he obtained a gun permit. "If somebody does make an attempt on my life," he said, "I want to let them know they better shoot straight."

Family competitor

The flag dust-up alienated many customers and caused a rift with his siblings, several of whom run independent barbecue concerns, sans the politics. When some grocery chains replaced Maurice's sauce with his brother Melvin's, Maurice stopped talking to his older brother. "I don't know what's wrong with him," Melvin Bessinger said.

But the controversy won Maurice Bessinger a new base of fans: the so-called heritage movement, a loosely organized group of Confederacy enthusiasts who, depending on your point of view, are either closet bigots or zealous Southern history buffs.

"I have had to seek out my friends and cater to their philosophy in order to survive," Bessinger said.

Blease Graham, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, said Bessinger's antics have appeal beyond the Confederacy crowd, reaching out to independent-minded Southerner who see him as a scrappy underdog against the forces of big government, corporate America and the Northeastern liberal elite.

"There's a kind of tolerance for what he's doing," Graham said, "ranging from out and out support to sort of a distant kind of amazement."

Bessinger managed to dodge headlines until last month, when South Carolina took another stride away from its past. Scana, a Fortune 500 company that is the state's largest gas and electric utility, barred employees who eat at Piggie Park from parking company vehicles in the restaurants' lots.

Bessinger announced that any Scana employee who flouted the new rule would eat for free. He had several hundred takers. "It made them look like mean bully boys," he said.

And it cost him $10,000.

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