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S.C. barbecue king stands his ground

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 venerable NAACP a "terrorist group."

He says there is evidence that slaves enjoyed life in the South. He makes clear that, in his mind, white Southerners are the best friends blacks have had - the best friends, he says, "in the history of the world." A visitor points out exceptions he ought to be familiar with: his restaurants, which refused to serve blacks until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened in the 1960s.

Now, well, that's different, he says.

"I went to the Supreme Court to defend a freedom," he says, "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 here in South Carolina, in the heart of the old Confederacy, Piggie Park Enterprises is still 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 was still flapping over Bessinger's busy restaurant in this 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. He has opened three restaurants since the flag dispute, and two more are in the works.

Elsewhere in South Carolina, more than 100 mom-and-pop stores, from beauty salons to tire shops, now 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 small.

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

In 1776, a South Carolina delegate led a successful fight against an anti-slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence. In 1860, the state had a higher proportion of slaveholders than did any other state. It was the first to secede from the Union, and its Fort Sumter saw the first shot of the Civil War.

Longtime observers of South Carolina say that racial attitudes have shifted markedly since then but that a tolerance for views such as Bessinger's lingers. One of his defenders is state Senate President Glenn F. McConnell, a powerful Republican who recently threatened to deny state contracts to businesses that mistreat Bessinger.

"He wouldn't have the success he has here in any other state," says Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the Columbia branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The civil rights group has urged tourists to boycott the state because the Confederate flag, a symbol to many of the South's slaveholding 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 has barely sat down to his plate of ham barbecue 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 after placing an order. "Elton John's gay, but I still listen to his music," he says by way of analogy.

Frank Stone, 62, whose card identifies him as a quartermaster in the Sons of Confederate Veterans, sits down at a lunch table next to Bessinger's. He leans over to tell the restaurant owner his plan to re-enact a Civil War battle, one that had turned out badly for General Sherman. Would Bessinger do the catering?

Bessinger smiles, his white mustache crinkling up at the edges. "They've been real good to me," he says of Civil War re-enactors - at least those partial to the Confederate side.

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 the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Columbia was the only state capital to continue flying the Confederate flag over the State House dome, and about 46,000 protesters from across the country descended on the building by the busload.

That summer, state lawmakers relented and moved the flag to a lower-altitude location on the capitol grounds. In response, Bessinger raised the Confederate battle flag over his eight Piggie Park restaurants around 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 called Defending my Heritage: The Maurice Bessinger Story. He sued the chains. (His case is pending.) And he got a gun permit. "If somebody does make an attempt on my life," he says, "I want to let them know they better shoot straight."

The flag dust-up alienated many customers. It also 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," says Melvin Bessinger.

But the dispute 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 very zealous Southern history buffs. "I have had to seek out my friends and cater ... to their philosophy in order to survive," Bessinger says.

Hence the Old South Museum and Gift Shop, a corner of his main restaurant that is actually a pair of tables piled with what might be termed Confederate gift ideas: a car horn that plays "Dixie," women's tube socks stitched with a miniature Confederate flag, a pocket-size pamphlet describing Abe Lincoln as a "dastardly wicked man."

Blease Graham, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina, says Bessinger's antics have appeal beyond the Confederacy crowd, reaching to a strain of independent-minded Southerner that sees 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," says Graham, "ranging from out and out support to sort of a distant kind of amazement."

Even so, most South Carolinians appear to have adjusted to life without Maurice smiling from bottle labels in the supermarket aisles. "A few people made the statement that they wouldn't shop here if we didn't bring it back," says Steve Fabrizio, manager of a Bi-Lo supermarket in West Columbia. "That only lasted a couple of weeks. They all came back."

Bessinger managed to dodge headlines until last month, when South Carolina took another stride away from its past. Scana Corp., 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.

"Both the flag and Maurice Bessinger are divisive issues," a Scana spokeswoman told The State, South Carolina's largest newspaper, which is based in Columbia.

Bessinger announced that any Scana employee with the guts to flout the new rule would eat for free. He got several hundred takers. "It made [Scana] look like mean bully boys," he says.

And it cost him $10,000.

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