There are certain “throwbacks,” old-school dinosaurs, that we good-naturedly tolerate.
Older fans who complain bitterly that the designated hitter has ruined baseball, elderly types who constantly yearn for the “good old days” when coffee only cost a quarter, or cranky seniors who bemoan the fact that “there’s nothing good on TV anymore.”
Okay, that last group includes a lot of younger people, too.
However, one species in that aging genus that needs to be put out of its (and our) misery — so to speak — is the racial bigot masquerading as a Bible-quoting Christian.
One of the more prominent of that breed recently passed away, and unfortunately, his political and religious proclivities overshadowed his contributions to the meat business.
Maurice Bessinger, who died recently at 83, was famous for creating a unique mustard-based barbecue sauce called Carolina Gold and as the entrepreneurial owner-operator of a string of barbecue restaurants in South Carolina. Sadly, he was equally infamous for his hardcore support of racial segregation, the Confederate flag and — believe it or not — the centuries of African-American slavery.
The tragedy is that from a business perspective, Bessinger’s story was an inspiring one.
Blocking the Doorway to Progress
As a New York Times profile noted, Bessinger spent much of the 1950s and ’60s “attacking race-mixing, running the National Association for the Preservation of White People and refusing to let African-Americans into his dining rooms,” long after most other restaurants in the South had given up that Jim Crow-era practice.
“People say my restaurant never served blacks, but that’s just not true,” he explained to the New York Times in 2000. “We just served them on a segregated basis, like every other restaurant did. What the blacks didn’t realize was that they got the best food, because their dining room was actually in the kitchen.”
In 1964, however, Bessinger stood in the doorway of one of his Piggie Park restaurants, a la George Wallace, to personally prevent a black minister from entering. A civil rights lawyer named Matthew Perry filed a lawsuit, and the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled 8-0 against Bessinger.
Some years later, he became a born-again Christian, setting up a religious mission next to his main restaurant in West Columbia, S.C., and distributing tracts to customers. That caused even more controversy than his former segregationist philosophy.
Along with pamphlets lauding the Confederacy and lamenting its defeat in the War of Northern Aggression — the Columbia daily newspaper The State noted that after the South Carolina Legislature voted to remove its Confederate flag from the Capitol dome, Bessinger replaced the American flag over his headquarters with the Confederate battle flag. One tract titled, “Biblical View of Slavery,” by a Baptist minister from Georgia named John Weaver, argued that slavery isn’t necessarily evil.
Why? Because it’s permitted in the Bible, the good preacher claimed.
“Don’t let anyone try to load you with guilt and say you need to make reparations for what your forefathers did,” stated Weaver’s tract, which used to be sold for $1 at Bessinger’s restaurants, right next to the Confederate memorabilia. “No! What our forefathers did was not evil in and of itself.”
Moreover, Weaver’s tract contended that many African slaves “blessed the Lord” for allowing them to be captured and shipped in chains across the Atlantic, because their life as slaves in the Confederate States — er, the United States, was so much better than whatever they might have enjoyed in Africa.
The fallout from that tract eventually prompted major grocery chains, such as Winn-Dixie, Bi-Lo, Kroger and Wal-Mart, to discontinue selling Bessinger’s popular barbecue sauce and frozen pulled pork.
“Bessinger’s business activities are unacceptable to us as a company and to many of our customers,” the Times quoted a statement issued by Bi-Lo Supermarkets in 2000. “We believe that removing his products from Bi-Lo stores will reinforce our belief in the dignity of each individual who shops with us.”
Following his death, the barbecue restaurants are now operated by the second generation of the family, which thankfully appears to be putting the segregationist past in the past.
In an interview with The State in October 2016, son Lloyd Bessinger said he was “shifting away from the politics that were important to his father,” and focusing more on the business. Earlier this year, the new management removed the last two Confederate flags that used to fly over the restaurants.
The family-run business now wants to appeal to all people, whatever their political party, he said.
“Dad liked politics,” Lloyd Bessinger told The State. “That’s not something we’re interested in doing. We want to serve great barbecue.”
I’ll take the barbecue. But hold the bigotry.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.