Maurice Bessinger, 1930–2014

Maurice Bessinger rode a white horse as part of his failed bid for South Carolina governor in 1974.
Maurice Bessinger rode a white horse as part of his failed bid for South Carolina governor in 1974.

This post was written by William McKinney, the co-author, with Dale and John Shelton Reed, of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.

Maurice Bessinger is dead. He was 83 years old. Sixty of those years were spent in public life: both as the face of his Piggie Park barbecue restaurants (also called Maurice’s), located throughout the South Carolina midlands, and as an ardent segregationist. He was, in a time before pastured pork and pecan wood, the face of South Carolina barbecue.

That he’s dead seems strange. I thought Maurice might wind up living forever: Around Columbia there were big billboards of him in his white suit, grinning with various Gamecock football coaches for well on half a century. By the time I enrolled in law school in Columbia, he already seemed eternal, like Mephistopheles, looking down at everyone—sartorially immaculate—suspended high above the traffic. Maurice was as much a huckster as he was a prophet of barbecue. He never seemed to miss an opportunity to generate news.

I first made Maurice’s acquaintance when I was a child. His barbecue was sold in the freezer aisle of the grocery store. It would bubble up in our family’s oven, its orange sauce as vivid as a river of lava. My mother would pack his barbecue in my lunch bag routinely, and I ate those sandwiches all the way through high school, wrapped up in aluminum foil and still a touch warm once lunch time came around.

Piggie Park remains an institution in South Carolina. Little Joe is the standard barbecue sandwich with slaw, and Big Joe is the heftier, upsized serving. Piggie Park Enterprises’ headquarters is located, naturally, in a fork in the road in West Columbia. There’s a giant pig on top of the electric marquee. His name, written on his varsity sweatshirt, is Little Joe. The marquee lights up at night, and it would not look out of place on the old Las Vegas strip—maybe next to the Golden Nugget.

If Maurice was a huckster, he was also a showman. He was a showman when he blocked black people from dining in at his restaurants. He was a showman when he ran for South Carolina governor in 1974 as a segregationist, eleven years after George Wallace of Alabama stepped aside from the school house door. Maurice campaigned in the Democratic gubernatorial primary that year astride a white horse. As the campaign floundered, he claimed his Piggie Park offices in West Columbia had been burgled. The perpetrators hadn’t taken any money, he told local reporters when he called them up to let them know about the incident, so they must have intended to go through his political stuff. Nobody was arrested, and Maurice never climbed out of the cellar in that race. A Republican eventually won the governor’s race that year, for the first time since Reconstruction.

Earlier, on August 12, 1964, Maurice refused to allow Anne Newman, Sharon Neal, and John Mungin to eat in his restaurant because they were black. They sued him under the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had been signed into law the previous month. Maurice’s obituaries note that the Supreme Court eventually ruled 8-0 against him. But first, Maurice won that case in the South Carolina District Court. A judge in South Carolina agreed with Maurice that he did not have to serve those people. It was a different time.

We read that opinion in law school, in our constitutional law class. It is notable because some customs, habits, and traditions can take a long time to change, and the going can be slow and tedious. Which, in a lot of ways, is reminiscent of the traditional process of cooking barbecue: slow and time consuming, the result is often bound up in the means of getting there.

While the picture of Little Joe atop the Piggie Park marquee at the fork in the road is a cartoon, Maurice was a person. He sought and obtained fame, for his views as well as his food. He held firm on segregation, and he held firm on cooking barbecue with hardwood coals. But he was also innovative. The 1966 District Court opinion in Newman vs. Piggie Park, the case that the Supreme Court eventually overturned, described his restaurant as something from the future—but now also from the past:

Piggie Park claims the distinction of operating the first drive-up specializing in barbecue although it sells other types of short orders…In order to to be served in one of the drive-ins a customer drives upon the premises in his automobile and places his order through an intercom located on the teletray immediately adjacent to and left of his parked position. After pushing a button located on the teletray his order is taken by an employee inside the building who is generally out of sight of the customer. When the order is prepared a curb girl then delivers the food or beverage to the customer’s car and collects for same.

Is this the whole story? My grandfather was the head of the Red Cross in Columbia when Maurice ran Piggie Park Enterprises. His responsibilities coordinated and administered aid in disaster situations—fires, hurricanes, and the like. My grandfather, who was not a Maurice apologist or a confederate of his views, said that when a disaster struck, the first person to donate coffee and food for the victims and responders was Maurice. No preconditions on race, no calls to reporters, and no white horses. Same person. Same person who outlived his brother Melvin, a Charleston barbecue entrepreneur, by just a year and a half.  Both were from Orangeburg, South Carolina, where hot-orange colored barbecue sauce is not unusual.

Maurice would fight later court battles, too. He sued a couple of grocery stores when they pulled his barbecue sauce after he started pushing rebel flag imagery again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. By then, the South Carolina judge didn’t agree with him anymore.  The South had changed by then, just as it changes now.  A few years later Maurice ceded control of the Piggie Parks to younger generations.  They moved away from the rebel flag stuff. The South had changed after all, and now there is no more Maurice. Because Maurice is dead.