Maurice Bessinger, known for his distinct barbecue sauce and polarizing stance regarding the Confederate flag, is opening one of his Maurice's barbecue restaurants in Rock Hill.
But local civil rights leaders are asking residents to boycott his business because of his controversial reputation.
As reported Tuesday morning at heraldonline.com, the restaurant, the 17th member of Bessinger's regional chain, will open in two or three weeks in a strip mall off Dave Lyle Boulevard near the Rock Hill Galleria. Bessinger operates more than a dozen stores in the Columbia area, Orangeburg and Santee, but this will be his first in the Upstate.
"We're getting expansion-minded," he said.
Ironically, the restaurant will be located directly in front of Wal-Mart, the company that ditched Bessinger's trademark mustard-based barbecue sauce eight years ago when he replaced the American flag atop his Columbia headquarters with the Confederate flag to protest lawmakers' decision to remove the controversial banner from the Statehouse dome.
The move led to reports that Bessinger distributed pamphlets in his stores suggesting slaves were fortunate to be in America instead of their native Africa, and that he didn't allow blacks to eat in his stores until the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in in 1976.
His stance on those issues led Wal-Mart and eventually other major grocery chains to stop carrying his secret recipe, mustard-based sauce.
Bessinger said he will carry the popular sauce at his Rock Hill store in addition to serving hickory-smoked pulled pork for lunch and dinner seven days a week.
However, civil rights leaders hope Rock Hill will prove to be an unwelcoming business environment for Bessinger.
"It's an insult to the city of Rock Hill, which claims to be a city with no room for racism, for a business of this nature, which promotes segregation and division, to choose our city as its home," said the Rev. Herb Crump, president of the Rock Hill chapter of the NAACP and pastor of Freedom Temple Ministries. "I think the best way to handle a business of this nature is to let it fail. Don't patronize it."
Saluda Street businessowner and community activist Melvin Poole agreed, saying the people of Rock Hill should send their business to competing restaurants.
"We're more than a dollar going into his pocket," said Poole, owner of P&B Tax and Bookkeeping and Poole & Bowen Photography and a former write-in candidate for City Council. "We're human beings that need to be respected."
Crump said the NAACP usually promotes economic development, but in this case he will urge people of all races and backgrounds not to eat at Maurice's. He acknowledged Bessinger's first amendment right to fly the flag and voice his beliefs, but said customers also have the right not to eat at his business.
While he still displays multiple versions of the Confederate flag in his stores, Bessinger, who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1974, said his Rock Hill expansion isn't about revenge with Wal-Mart, race or the flag. It's about business.
"Heck no, I didn't plan it that way," Bessinger said about the location near Wal-Mart. "I didn't even know Wal-Mart was there until I came to see the building before I signed the deal. ... It is kinda funny, though.
"That's a growing area. I've been looking at Dave Lyle for 15 years."
Bessinger's path to becoming a pork and political icon began almost 70 years ago. As a boy in 1939, he helped his father open a barbecue restaurant with the money they made from selling the family's best cow, he said. That's when he began developing his now-famous mustard-based sauce and hickory-smoked cooking method.
After serving in the Korean War, Bessinger,now 77, opened his first "Piggie Park" restaurant in Columbia 55 years ago. Since then, he's grown from a single diner to a 17-store chain that has barbecue cooking 24 hours a day, seven days a week, he said, to uphold his mantra of serving pork fresh every day.
"That's real good barbecue when its served on the first day," Bessinger said. "Anything else, that's not real barbecue."
Bessinger published a book describing his controversial views in 2001, and last year the state Supreme Court decided not to hear his lawsuit against the grocers that dropped his line of products.