Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Maurice Bessinger, the restauranteur known both for his signature barbeque and his controversial views on race, has died at the age of 83.
A statement from the corporate headquarters of his company, Maurice's Barbeque, confirmed his death Monday. The company said he's been battling Alzheimer's disease.
"Our family is very thankful for the memories and lessons he left us," the statement read in part. "We are grateful that he is done with the pain and sadness of this disease and is now in the presence of his Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."
Bessinger served in the Korean War, and when he came home from the war he founded his "Piggie Park" restaurant. Over the ensuing decades, he expanded his chain of stores all across the state. Billboards were put up with Bessingers likeness, clad in a white suit, promoting his "Carolina Gold" brand products.
However, in addition to his business, he often commented on race and slavery, leading to sharp criticism and even corporate rebukes over the course of his life.
In the late 1960s, wouldn't serve African-American customers at his restaurants, leading to a lawsuit filed by civil rights attorney--and later federal judge--Matthew Perry. Bessinger would lose the lawsuit and begin serving all customers.
In interviews, Bessinger often said that he felt slavery was not harsh toward African-Americans. Later, some literature describing that viewpoint was found at one of his restaurants, and in response, several grocery store chains pulled his barbeque sauce from their stores.
Bessenger unsuccessfully sued the stores in response.
A few years later, SCANA corporation issued a policy banning employees from going to the store in their company vehicles.
Bessinger also stoked controversy when he began flying the Confederate battle flag at his restaurants. He took the flag down in 2010 citing a poor economy and costs.
He penned a book describing his worldview in a book called "Defending My Heritage: The Maurice Bessinger Story."