Businessman. Bessinger, born in Orangeburg County on July 14, 1930, is founder of the Piggie Park restaurant chain. He is a restaurant impresario of the old school, a P. T. Barnum of the barbecue world, an evangelical Christian who has all but declared barbecue a sacrament. “All the Old Testament sacrifices were cooked with wood,” he told a newspaper reporter in 1996, “and that was ordained by God.”
Bessinger has been cooking hams over hickory wood in West Columbia since the early 1950s. The main restaurant is a sprawling complex built, like many drive-ins of an earlier era, in a hub-and-spoke pattern with the dining room at the center and corrugated tin-topped awnings radiating outward. Just inside the door sits a pile of pamphlets and newspaper clippings attesting to Bessinger’s barbecue acumen or pleading that nonbelievers heed the Word of God. Other pamphlets tout a peculiar brand of southern heritage and boast titles such as “The Truth about the Confederate Battle Flag.”
Like fellow restaurateur Lester Maddox of Georgia, Bessinger once entertained political aspirations. On passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which stipulated that businesses engaged in interstate commerce must desegregate, he took a stand. In July 1964 Bessinger, who at that time owned four Piggie Park restaurants, refused a black minister who attempted to enter one of his restaurants. The case—Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises—went to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1968 the court handed down a unanimous ruling against Bessinger. Also during the 1960s Bessinger served as president of the National Association for the Advancement of White People. Under his leadership the organization distributed fliers that proclaimed, “You are white because your ancestors believed in segregation.” Bessinger attempted to leverage his notoriety in a bid for public office. Unlike Maddox, who was installed as governor of Georgia in 1967, Bessinger failed in his 1974 bid for governor, despite a proven ability to curry press coverage by way of stunts such as parading about Columbia on a white horse named Queen.
The year before his bid for governor, Bessinger underwent a religious conversion. He later erected a mission in the midst of Piggie Park, right beside the pits, where on Wednesdays he led a Bible-study class. “When you have a truly religious conversion,” Bessinger told a reporter, “you don’t see black and white, you don’t see rich and poor.” Bessinger’s critics argue that he has not mellowed. In July 2000, when the South Carolina legislature removed the Confederate battle flag from the State House dome, Bessinger raised a Confederate battle flag over each of his nine restaurants and reaped a whirlwind of criticism that resulted in the withdrawal of his bottled mustard-based barbecue sauces from grocery chains.
Bessinger, Maurice. Defending My Heritage. West Columbia, S.C.: LMBONE- LEHONE, 2001.
Hicks, Brian. “Politics Spice Barbecue Brothers’ Conflicts.” Charleston Post and Courier, January 14, 2001, pp. A1, A9.
Hitt, Jack. “A Confederacy of Sauces.” New York Times Magazine, August 26, 2001, pp. 28–31.