The History Behind the Southern Booze Buzzkill

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Devil girl liquor caddy and paper towel holder made by Speedcult, Detroit.

Following up on my recent post on the historical demise and recent resurgence of American craft breweries, I thought I’d discuss another example of how booze and American history are forever intertwined. Last year the BBC ran an interesting article on the slow death of vestigial prohibition laws in the American South. Following the ending of national prohibition law in 1933, laws regarding the sale and distribution of alcohol fell back to the states. In the southern Bible Belt, the spirit (pun intended) of prohibition remained alive in the hearts of local temperance advocates. As the BBC reported:

When alcohol regulation was handed back to individual states, many local communities voted to keep the restrictions in place, particularly in the southern Bible Belt.

Today there are still more than 200 “dry” counties in the United States, and many more where cities and towns within dry areas have voted to allow alcohol sales, making them “moist” or partially dry.

The result is a patchwork of dry, wet and moist counties stretching across the south.

There’s an old saying (or maybe I just made it up) that even in the midst of economic depression, the bars always remain open. Well, following the 2008 economic crash, the temptation to reap some easy cash from the sale of booze has fuelled momentum to repeal long-established temperance laws:

Every few weeks, somewhere in the US, citizens of a dry area gather enough signatures on a petition to trigger a wet/dry referendum. It is not a one-way street – some communities have voted to remain dry or even introduce further restrictions on alcohol sales.

But hard economic times have accelerated the march of alcohol, and in recent years many communities that have been dry for decades are opting to end prohibition, for fear of losing business to their wet neighbours.

So how did the South come to embrace prohibition so thoroughly that its effects still linger in the form of dry counties well into 2013? The answer involves two central themes in southern history: religion and race. Southern prohibition laws were mostly enacted between 1880 and 1915. They were spearheaded by Evangelical Protestantism, a cultural force that still maintains a powerful influence in the South today. Historian Joe Coker, who was interviewed for the BBC piece, explains in his book Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause that southern evangelicals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, particularly the Baptists, embraced prohibition in order to preserve the moral uprightness of southern culture. For evangelicals, “southern culture” entailed traditions of honor, Christian religious faith, and, especially, white supremacy.

The American temperance movement originated in New England, but antebellum southern evangelicals had little need for temperance in a culture that linked alcohol consumption to honor and white manhood. Indeed, slaves were forbidden from drinking except during carefully controlled celebrations like Christmas, when slaveholders monitored slaves’ drinking as a form of racial control. After the Civil War, however, the abolition of slavery gave blacks open access to hooch. This became especially problematic in the late nineteenth century, when the racist cultural trope of the lustful “black beast” bent on raping white women swept the South, spurring an era of brutal lynchings. White evangelicals argued that black rapists were driven by alcohol consumption and, consequently, advocated for prohibition as a means of reasserting white control over wayward southern blacks.

Evangelicals combined their desire to control alleged drunken black rapists with a recasting of southern honor that eschewed traditional honorable activities like drinking, fighting, gambling, and racial violence in favor of a new bourgeoise version of southern honor characterized by Victorian propriety. Thus, evangelicals succeeded in extending a plan of racial control to prevent all of southern society, black and white, from partaking of the forbidden elixures.*

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Map showing the still remaining U.S. dry counties. Nearly all are located in the South. Map courtesy of the BBC.

Thanks to the efforts of evangelicals, a good slice of the South, particularly in Kentucky, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee still have dry counties. This highlights a broader point about the nature of government involvement in private affairs in Dixie that influences southern lawmaking and culture to this day. Despite a generally conservative political culture in the South that emphasizes limited government interference in individual affairs, southern evangelicals have not ceased trying to use the state to shape social behavior according to their preferred designs. Contemporary evangelicals are behind efforts to use government power to ban gay marriage and restrict, if not outright ban, women’s access to abortion — and they still want to keep some counties in the South booze free.

In terms of the liquor bans, though, it looks like the religious folks’ stranglehold is starting to loosen. And, as with a lot of things in history, if you follow the money trail, you’ll get close to some answers. There’s nothing like a big ole’ recession to uncork (pun REALLY intended) a few bottles to start pouring out some much-needed revenue. Back in March, Governing reported that a growing number of localities across the South were ending decades-long prohibitions on sale and consumption of hooch in efforts to raise revenue without raising taxes. This trend is also happening outside of Dixie. In February, for example, the town of Seneca, New York reversed an 80 year standing ban on the sale of booze in order to raise enough dough to keep its landfill open.

The slow hammering of the final remaining nails in prohibition’s coffin reminds us of two crucial points about Americans as a group. 1.) Whatever their political persuasions, they aren’t shy about using the state to force others to bend to their sacred whims, and 2.) even the most deeply held beliefs can become suddenly negotiable when you threaten the cash flow. Now go out and get sloshed tonight, my friends, its your civic duty.

* For more information on prohibition in the South, see Joe L. Coker, Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007).

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