Prohibition in Alabama

Rep. Richmond P. Hobson, 1914 Alabama enacted Prohibition in 1907, well before the federal era of nationwide Prohibition (1919-1933). Throughout the early decades of the twentieth century, reform-minded Alabamians worked at the local, state, and national level to outlaw the manufacture and distribution of alcoholic beverages. Although state laws and the 18th Amendment, ratified in 1919, prohibited liquor sales, Alabamians found it nearly impossible to enforce the laws. Prohibition was more successful at the local level, and even after the 21st Amendment repealed national Prohibition in 1933, many Alabamians continued to support local prohibition and repeal initiatives into the 21st century.

Several prominent Alabamians played major roles in the Prohibition movement. War hero and politician Richmond Pearson Hobson spent the majority of his legislative career working to ban the sale of alcohol, and congressman and senator Oscar Underwood strove equally on the opposing side. Suffragist and social welfare advocate Patti Ruffner Jacobs backed efforts to repeal federal Prohibition, and Fort Payne‘s Flock brothers honed the skills that would make them NASCAR stars by transporting illegal liquor in their cars.

The Temperance Movement

Prior to the Civil War, “temperance” reformers argued that excessive drinking led to a series of social ills, including divorce, domestic violence, corrupt politicians, and lazy workers. They asked individuals to abstain as a moral, personal choice. After the Civil War, leading reformers began to turn their focus on the government, believing that the dangers of alcohol might be more effectively addressed with legislation attacking its source. In particular, reformers pushed for laws limiting where and how liquor could be sold. One particular version, popular among Alabama’s reformers, were “local option laws,” which allowed voters to prohibit the sale of alcohol within their jurisdiction; by 1874, 22 Alabama counties had passed such laws, going “dry.”

Prohibition Nevertheless, through the late nineteenth century, alcohol became more available to most Alabamians. In cities and industrial areas, wage workers spent their pay in bars and saloons, and rural southerners made alcohol, mostly with corn, in homemade stills, a practice called “moonshining” because it occurred a night to avoid detection. Residents of dry counties simply had to cross the county line to purchase alcohol. Such limited success convinced reformers to adopt a more comprehensive approach: state and national prohibition. Their efforts coincided with the turn-of-the-century Progressive movement in which reformers addressed social ills by legislating a white middle-class version of an ideal community. In Alabama, Progressive prohibitionist efforts centered on the work of three groups. The first, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), formed an Alabama chapter in 1884. Although more traditional ideas about the role of women in society prevented WCTU members from actively campaigning politically, members held parades and public meetings to call for temperance, creating moral pressure for change. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL) entered Alabama in 1904 and was led by Presbyterian minister Brooks Lawrence, who had headed the Anti-Saloon league in Ohio. The ASL lobbied state politicians to establish statewide controls on alcohol. And third, Alabama’s evangelical Christians, mostly Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians, argued that alcohol consumption was a sin and demanded government action to outlaw it. Some of the most prominent evangelists of the time, including Alabama-born Methodist Sam Jones, peppered their sermons with the language of the prohibitionists.

Prohibition Cartoon, 1909 Led by the ASL and WCTU, prohibitionists demanded a comprehensive state law, and in its 1907 regular session, the Alabama legislature passed a statewide local-option law. It required counties to hold a wet/dry vote if one-fourth of the registered voters petitioned the government. By the end of the year, 58 of 67 counties had voted to go “dry.” That success, combined with increased pressure from the ASL and WCTU, encouraged further action. In a November special session that same year, the legislature adopted statewide prohibition of the production and distribution of alcohol. Press reports stated that when the Senate approved the legislation, prohibitionists stormed the floor, singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.”

Alabamians Lead Support and Opposition

Even as Alabama went dry, Progressives in and out of the state continued to work for national prohibition. In fact, much of the nationwide debate over Prohibition occurred between two prominent Alabama politicians, Richmond Pearson Hobson and Oscar Underwood. In 1906, Hobson, a naval hero of Spanish-American War, won the seat in the House of Representatives previously held by John Hollis Bankhead and became a strident supporter of Prohibition. He gave a number of well-received speeches on the dangers of alcohol. In his most famous “Alcohol, the Great Destroyer,” Hobson argued that drinking caused young men to become “semicivilized, semisavage, savage, and, at last, below the brute,” and warned that alcohol would lead the nation to ruin. In 1913, Hobson introduced an amendment to the Constitution to prohibit the manufacture and distribution of alcohol. Although his attempt failed, it established Hobson as the leading voice for a nationwide ban.

Oscar W. Underwood Congressman Oscar Underwood, a Birmingham lawyer, was a vocal opponent of the “Hobson Amendment.” He and several other long-time Democratic politicians couched their opposition in terms of “states’ rights” rhetoric, suggesting that states should decide for themselves on Prohibition. Underwood was backed by a number of interests who opposed Prohibition, including the urban working-class, Catholics, and the state’s businessmen (who feared the impact of an outright ban on outside investment in Alabama). In 1914, Hobson and Underwood had competed in the Democratic primary for the Senate seat opened by the death of Joseph Forney Johnston in 1913, a race that revolved around the issue of alcohol. Lycurgus Breckinridge Musgrove, Hobson’s campaign manager, told Alabamians that Underwood was a tool of the liquor interests. Forney Johnston, Joseph’s son who ran Underwood’s campaign, criticized Hobson as a paid shill of the prohibitionists. Musgrove would himself challenge Underwood in the 1920 primary, running as a “fanatical prohibitionist.” Underwood had soundly defeated Hobson in the 1914 primary, but his victory in 1920 was much closer, especially given that Musgrove split the “dry” vote with another prohibitionist; Underwood’s narrowing margins suggested the growing power of prohibitionist rhetoric in the state.

National Prohibition and Enforcement

Progressives continued to pressure the government, and World War I strengthened the case for national prohibition; wheat (otherwise used for alcohol) fed troops fighting in the trenches, and the public feared the impact of liquor on the troops. With the support of Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Congress passed a revised version of Hobson’s amendment in 1918, and on January 14, 1919, Alabama ratified prohibition with the 18th Amendment. Gov. Thomas Kilby signed legislation creating the State Law Enforcement Division and supplemented it with agents from the federal Bureau of Prohibition. By 1920, Alabama (and the rest of the nation) was officially “bone dry.”

Bangor Cave, ca. 1930 Federal and state authorities actively pursued Alabamians who violated Prohibition, at least during its early years. Along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. Coast Guard patrolled for smugglers trying to bring alcohol ashore from Cuba. The Customs Bureau watched the port, the rail lines connecting Mobile to New Orleans, and the roads leading to Birmingham and beyond. Inland, agents of the Prohibition Bureau raided speakeasies, where customers ordered illicit cocktails, and busted up backwoods stills. Between 1919 and 1933, the years of national Prohibition, nearly 18,000 Alabamians were arrested for activities in violation of state and federal prohibition law, and more than 10,000 were brought to trial, though sentences tended to be relatively light, mostly consisting of fines or probation.

Confiscated Moonshine Equipment, 1921 Agents focused their efforts on the two regions that proved most resistant to Prohibition. In Birmingham, which one observer called the “wickedest place in Alabama,” a 1929 grand jury handed down 71 indictments, including a number of federal agents accused of taking bribes. The most famous prosecution came in Mobile. With much of the city’s population in open violation, the Attorney General Harwell G. Davis sent two men to the city: undercover investigator Izzy Einstein and prosecutor Hugo Black, a lawyer and future senator and Supreme Court Justice who had given Birmingham bootleggers maximum sentences. In November 1923, federal agents uncovered a massive crime ring and confiscated 10,000 quarts of liquor. Eventually, 117 individuals were indicted, including prominent businessmen, the county sheriff, and the police chief; Black won several high-profile convictions.

Prohibition also saw extra-legal enforcement, most notably by the revitalized Ku Klux Klan. Convinced that alcohol debauched white southern communities, Klan members used intimidation and violence to punish those they deemed in violation of Prohibition. Members shut down saloons and roadhouses, beat those suspected of selling liquor, and intimidated those found consuming it. The Klan also threw its substantial political influence behind those politicians who supported Prohibition, including Hobson and Musgrove, while opposing Underwood.

Fonty Flock Yet the enforcement of Prohibition proved to be both time- and resource-consuming. Moonshining was an established part of Alabama’s rural communities, and agents struggled to find and destroy the personal stills scattered across the state. And, because illicit liquor fetched higher prices, many moonshiners chanced arrest to “run” their alcohol to larger communities. Some, like the Flock family of Fort Payne, DeKalb County, translated their skill at outrunning and evading Internal Revenue Service agents, or “revenuers,” into a storied career in automobile racing, eventually finding their way to NASCAR. In the state’s larger cities, drinkers paid off corrupt officials to ignore bars, restaurants, and hotels that served smuggled alcohol, often in coffee cups and sauce bottles. Mobile was a major entry point for smuggled liquor coming through Cuba. Enterprising criminals bought alcohol in bulk on the island, and then parked their ships on “Rum Row,” a line of craft 20 miles offshore which was well outside U.S. territorial waters and the reach of law enforcement. Smaller “rum runners” picked up crates and landed them in the port (under the eyes of bribed officials), along Alabama beaches, and deep in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Liquor entering Mobile was sold as far north as Chicago and Detroit.

Prohibition Support Wanes

By the late 1920s, rising crime centered on the liquor trade began to sour even the most ardent supporters of prohibition. Making matters worse, divisions over support for Prohibition created rifts in Alabama politics. In 1928, Democrats nominated New York’s Al Smith, a Catholic opponent of Prohibition, for president. Some Alabama Democrats, most notably Sen. J. Thomas Heflin, refused to back the party and threw support to the Republican Herbert Hoover. State party officials argued that party disloyalty would threaten white supremacy, and in a close election, Smith barely won the state’s electors while losing the general election.

Pattie Ruffner Jacobs In the gubernatorial election of 1930, Benjamin Meek Miller won the governorship and, upon taking office, eliminated the State Law Enforcement Division, supposedly to save the state money in the depths of the Great Depression. This left enforcement to local authorities. While campaigning in 1932, Franklin Roosevelt made repeal of Prohibition a key part of his plan for addressing the Depression, touting alcohol as a source of tax revenue as well as a salve for an anxious nation. In Alabama, suffragist and reformer Pattie Ruffner Jacobs led the state Democratic Party’s efforts to build support for repeal. Her efforts worked, and in 1933, Alabama voters ratified the 21st Amendment, contributing to the repeal of national Prohibition. Though statewide sales resumed in 1937, because of local option laws, some communities remained dry well beyond the end of national Prohibition. As of 2019, 24 Alabama counties remain dry, though each contains municipalities that have legalized alcohol sales within city limits.

Prohibition had an important effect on Alabama. The reform movement demonstrated the influence of Progressive reformers on state politics, most notably women and evangelical Christians. Prohibition also exposed fractures within state politics and divisions between Democrats over federal power and states’ rights and urban progressives and rural conservatives. Alabama’s experiment with Prohibition revealed a state grappling with modern life, negotiating questions of social reform, political power, and community integrity as the state entered the twentieth century.

Further Reading

  • Dorr, Lisa Lindquist. A Thousand Thirsty Beaches: Smuggling Alcohol from Cuba to the South during Prohibition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018.
  • Hackney, Sheldon. Populism to Progressivism in Alabama. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.
  • Howington, Arthur F. “John Barley Corn Subdued: The Enforcement of Prohibition in Alabama.” Alabama Review 23 (July 1970): 212-25.
  • Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011.

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