Prohibition’s Racist Underbelly

Running through the rise of the Prohibition movement is a current of fear. It’s a fear of the “other,” a fear of the change they bring. The movement is famously tied to the increase in immigrants during the industrial revolution, many of whom—Irish, German, Italian, and others—came from cultures where alcohol was an important component of social life.  These immigrants poured into northeast cities established by Puritans and Quakers, rapidly altering the fabric of daily life there, and Prohibition was one major response by the worried WASPs. Further south, though, there was another major social change taking place in the wake of the abolition of slavery. As northern states reacted to the influx of immigrants, southerners were trying to piece together what their new, post-slavery world would look like. There, too, alcohol would play a key role.

Before the 1880s, there wasn’t much of a Temperance movement in the south. Temperance had always been a progressive cause, led by moralizing northerners and aligned with other liberal goals like women’s suffrage and, importantly, abolition. That made it a powerful force in the north, where New England states had been experimenting with prohibitionist laws for decades, but made it a non-starter below the Mason-Dixon line. The topic finally did start to come up towards the end of the 1870s, when the war had been over for a decade and the northern-led Reconstruction period had ended. A more liberal set of southerners (relatively speaking), often clergy, began to view the South’s defeat as a blessing in disguise. Adapting ideas from northern thinkers, they came to see slavery as an economic impediment, and its end as an opportunity to reorganize southern society in a more industrious and moral manner—with African Americans included.[i] Temperance and prohibition were part of the agenda for these “New Southites,” and they found support among many African-American leaders who saw temperance advocacy as a path to political involvement and social respectability.

The New South philosophy, though, was a losing cause. The tide was turning towards exclusion of African Americans from political and social life, with Jim Crow laws springing up across the South. It seemed that white people were not going to vote for prohibition laws in the name of a Yankee-inspired vision for the southern future. The liberal leaders of the movement faded out, and in their place came a new generation that embraced the racist perspective of Jim Crow, and was far more successful for doing so. They grabbed onto and exploited an image of black people as wild and uncontrollable drunks, out to rape and pillage white society as soon as liquor touched their lips (this will sound familiar if you read my Myth of the Drunken Indian article). They used this image to push disenfranchisement laws, removing African Americans from the political equation.

That disenfranchisement served a major strategic purpose. When black men could vote, they voted overwhelmingly Republican. Most white men voted Democrat. The fear of black political power meant that party loyalty trumped any individual issue. That was a problem for prohibitionists, whose political strategy was to wield a bloc of “dry” voters who would vote for either party’s candidate if they supported prohibition. For that to work, voters had to be willing to cross party lines. By disenfranchising black voters, they broke the Democratic Party’s hold on the remaining white voters, and they could start packing statehouses with politicians who owed them their election. They passed local option laws, then “dispensary” systems similar to the modern control states, then in 1907 Georgia became the first southern state to go dry, with most of the rest of them following close behind.

Even after all that, many African Americans (including, prominently, Booker T. Washington) still supported prohibition in principal. That quickly changed, though, when the laws went into effect. First at the state level and then nationally, prohibition laws were unevenly enforced, with poor and minority communities often bearing the brunt. In smaller towns and cities that meant what you would expect—police targeting minorities over other offenders or using the powers of the laws to disempower minority communities. That happened in big cities too, but since there was a perception that there was too much lawbreaking to handle, it also meant strategically not enforcing the law in minority neighborhoods, pushing vice of all kinds into places like Harlem and Chicago’s south side. Prisons filled with black alcohol law offenders while black neighborhoods became riddled with crime, much of it directed by white gangsters or committed by “slumming” whites from other parts of the city.[ii] As the debate over Prohibition’s future heated up in the 1920s, African Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of doing away with it.

Republicans, who held the White House and Congress, were the face of Prohibition and its enforcement. That was enough to make many African Americans switch parties for the first time, and in 1928 many supported Democrat Al Smith for president. It was the beginning of a party loyalty shift that would continue through the Roosevelt years and culminate with Lyndon Johnson and the Civil Rights Act.

This was also, though, the beginning of the modern American police state. During Prohibition courts were expanded, new prisons were built, and new law enforcement agencies were organized.  When the 21st Amendment passed, all that didn’t disappear. Law enforcement just shifted focus to other efforts like the War on Drugs—a war with the same racist underbelly as the war on alcohol.

[i] That’s not to say they were truly anti-slavery. They heartily defended the practice as necessary and good during its time; they just believed that with the industrial revolution, it was no longer beneficial. Their concept of African American “inclusion” was also decidedly paternalistic.

[ii] The corollary to this policy of isolating sin in minority neighborhoods was that they became centers for radical thought and creative expression, in many ways birthing US popular culture.

Herd, Denise A. “Prohibition, Race, and Class Politics in the Post-Reconstruction South.” Journal of Drug Issues, vol. 13 no. 1: 1983
Hanes, Walton Jr. and James E. Taylor. “Blacks and the Southern Prohibition Movement.” Phylon, vol. 32 no. 3: 1971
Coker, Joe L. “Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement.” University Press of Kentucky, Lexington: 2006
Sellers, James Benson. “Prohibition in Alabama, 1702-1943.” The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill: 1943 (do note that this book is both racist and pro-prohibition)
Willis, Lee L. “Southern Prohibition: Race, Reform, and Public Life in Middle Florida, 1821-1920.” University of Georgia Press, Athens: 2011
McGirr, Lisa. “The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State.” Norton, New York, NY: 2016

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s