South Carolina Entrepreneur Lowers US Flag, Raises SC, Confederate Banners

Drive from any direction into Columbia, capital of the proud State of South Carolina, and you will eventually see one of any number of billboards advertising Maurice's B-B-Q Restaurants. The billboards depict a graying man in a white suit and tie, grinning from ear to ear. The Maurice in the picture is Maurice Bessinger, Columbia entrepreneur and millionaire who made his money the old-fashioned way: working for himself in the free market. With just a few thousand dollars, a lot of know-how and a lot of motivation, Mr. Bessinger has built one of the largest barbecue restaurant chains anywhere in the South. His own mouthwateringly delicious mustard-based gourmet barbecue sauce is now distributed nationwide. His achievements have been noted in magazines from Southern Living to People, and he once won an award from the Small Business Administration.

Maurice Bessinger is also a gadfly of the first order to the political establishment here. An unreconstructed Southerner to the core, he fiercely opposed, down to the last minute, efforts to remove the Confederate flag from the State House Dome. Being on the losing side of that battle hasn't stopped him. Mr. Bessinger had long flown the largest American flag of any businessman in the area over his West Columbia headquarters (known to locals as Piggie Park). Just this week he took the unprecedented step of removing this and other US flags from the flagpoles at all of his nine restaurants, and raising both South Carolina and Confederate flags. On August 22, he issued a press release stating why. His remarks are the product of a man who has given more than a few passing thoughts to issues of state sovereignty, and the Washington government looming like a colossus over all of us and everything we do. The result is a good lesson in liberty and its origins.

The Constitution, states Mr. Bessinger, spells out "the proper relationship between the several states and the United States government." The federal government was a creation of the states (all of whom, except Rhode Island, sent delegates to the Philadelphia Convention of 1787). It did not seize power. Its powers were originally few, and carefully delineated. The Bill of Rights, appended following a struggle with the so-called Anti-Federalists who believed the new document gave the central government too much power, concludes with the 9th and 10th Amendments. These read, respectively: "The enumeration in this Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." The basic idea: rights antecede governments. They are not created by governments.

The Framers distrusted power. This was to be expected, given that they had just participated in fighting, and winning, the War for American Independence. After what they observed of King George's regime and its abuses, they had every reason to be conscious of the dangers of allowing power to become centralized all over again.

Mr. Bessinger's point is that since 1865, we have seen a near-complete reversal of this. "… [S]ince the end of the War for Southern Independence in 1865 the people who control the US government have slowly, but insidiously, taken power from the states and vested it in a centralized federal government. The fact that this action is strictly forbidden by the Bill of Rights has made no difference to those who seek to centralize all political power under their control."

The US flag, he goes on to argue, has become a symbol of this centralization of power in the federal colossus. This explains his symbolic removal of his US flags from his private property. "It should not fly over any state property at all. It should fly only over federal property." Flying the US flag over state property – particularly as it usually flies at the top of flagpoles, with the state flag beneath it – sends an historically incorrect message about the relationship between state and federal sovereignty. If the federal government is the creation of the states, then the states ought to be the political entities in the driver's seat if any governmental entities are; the federal government was created to be the servant of the states, not their master. Does it not follow that the state flag should be at the top of every flagpole displaying both, and the federal flag beneath it?

Mr. Bessinger observes, further, that the federal flag flies by itself over federal property (post offices, federal courthouses, military bases): "You will note that on federal government property … there are no state flags flying. The federal government flies only its own flag on its own property." So why should states not do the same, flying only state flags over state property? This would help define the correct relationship between the state level and the federal level. "Our people should be able to tell at a glance whether a court is a state court or a federal court – they should be able to tell by the flag that flies on the pole outside the building."

So what is Mr. Bessinger's aim with this provocation? To open a new discussion over the relationship between the states and the federal colossus: "I would hope that members of the SC Legislature would open a dialogue among themselves that would lead to the proper understanding of the states as still sovereign over the federal government. I am sure that a proper, reasonable and intelligent discussion will lead to the removal of the federal flag from all state property."

It is worth noting that his Confederate flag is subordinate to the flag of the State of South Carolina. The former flies beneath the latter: "The state flag is the flag that represents our highest sovereignty. The Confederate flag is to both remind people that Southerners wrote the Constitution and that Southerners continue to be its most loyal defenders, plus the Confederate flag is recognized as the universal symbol of resistance to centralized tyranny."

It is difficult to know where all this will lead, including whether this will hurt Mr. Bessinger's business. One of the towns in suburban Columbia, Lexington, has begun fining him $500 a day for displaying a banner without a permit. Mr. Bessinger has not only refused to pay the fines but threatened a lawsuit. He has stated that he will fight all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. Clearly he has enough of a financial cushion that it won't matter significantly if he does accrue some fines, and if his controversial stands drive off the “fair weather customers,” then so be it. Mr. Bessinger clearly has a loyal clientele that agrees with many of his positions on issues, and admires how he places loyalty to principle ahead of all else. Last winter he told me in an interview for the Edgefield Journalthat “if you believe something you should say it, and it should have no relationship to your business. Everybody ought to have a Constitutional right to speak his mind. It's called the First Amendment, and not enough people use it.”

In this case, as we stand just four months away from the actual turn of the millennium (January 1, 2001), centralized political solutions to problems are almost taken for granted by many, and the orgy of centralization is continuing. Not merely state sovereignty but national sovereignty is under assault. Early next month, after all, the United Nations convenes to discuss prospects for global governance. No conspiracy here; what is being done, is being done right out in the open. All the information one needs on the stealth move toward global socialism can be had from the UN website.

As we stand in the shadow not just of our own federal colossus but of this still larger entity which would be more hostile to our liberties than the federal colossus, the words and actions of a Maurice Bessinger come like a breath of fresh air. Let whatever discussion he provokes bear fruit.

August 26, 2000

Steven Yates has a PhD in philosophy and is the author of Civil Wrongs: What Went Wrong With Affirmative Action (San Francisco: ICS Press, 1994). A frequent contributor to and The Edgefield Journal, he lives and freelance writes in Columbia, South Carolina. He is at work on a new book, The Paradox of Liberty.

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