Drinking in the heart of Dixie

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This is the first in a series of columns that trace the history of efforts to regulate the manufacture, sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages in Alabama. What follows is an updated and expanded version of an article by the author that first appeared in The Anniston Star back in 2008.
Big changes taking place. Last month, down in Clay County, the cities of Ashland and Lineville voted to go “Wet.”
It wasn’t even close. According to one observer on the scene, some folks who put “Vote Dry” signs in their yards must have had a change of mind, and heart, when they entered the voting booth.
More importantly, as a result of this vote there are no longer any completely “Dry” counties in Alabama.
But wait, there’s more.
On June 1, a law will go into effect that will allow “beer pubs” to sell “beer to go,” something common in most states but until now prohibited here.
Now you might think that allowing a city to be wet while the county around it remains dry, or allowing an establishment to sell the beer it brews to be consumed  on the premises, but not allowing customers take some home to drink with supper, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
Well, if you do, you are not from Alabama. For to Alabamians, odd liquor laws are, and have been, like mother’s milk.
They nourish and sustain us.
Why? Let me explain.
Like just about everything in this state, the story begins before the Civil War.
Although there were temperance groups in some towns around the state back then, whiskey was too important to many local economies for people to get serious about actually passing laws to regulate it.
Think of it this way.  How else could a hardscrabble farmer whose principle crop was corn, not cotton, turn bulk grain into a manageable commodity for which there was a ready market?
So a wagon load of corn no one will buy was turned into a few barrels of whiskey which, bottled or jugged, brought a good price.
Who would want to disrupt that trade? Well, temperance advocates and prohibitionists would.
(Quick definition.  Temperance folks grudgingly accepted drinking in moderation.  Prohibitionists wanted it all – making, selling, drinking – to stop.)
Both temperance and prohibition had something else working against them.  They were Yankee movements, inspired by those New England Puritans who were always criticizing what Dixie was doing. What good Southerner would want to get mixed up with that bunch.
After The War, things changed.
A new generation of Southerners began talking about a New South where factories would join plantations as the backbone of the economy.  New South industrialists wanted a sober work force in the mills and in the mill towns. Planters wanted former slaves to become docile, sober sharecroppers. White folks also feared that off the plantation black folks would “get out of control.”  They wanted (as a Methodist publication of the time put it) to “keep the passion inflamer out of the hands of the savage race.”  And reformers who believed that Christians should make life better for everybody else, wanted to protect families form the evils of strong drink.
This powerful coalition – big agriculture, big business, social conservatives – was similar to, and in some cases the same as, the coalition that in 1901wrote the constitution that governs us today (and any similarity to the modern Republican Party is not coincidental).  Led by Gov. B. B. Comer, a major mill owner and staunch prohibitionist, the coalition pushed for and got a statewide vote to amend the Constitution and dry Alabama up.
But Alabama did not vote dry. By an overwhelming majority voters rejected prohibition.
Turns out, Alabama was changing.  Cities like Birmingham and Mobile, counties like Baldwin, and larger towns like Selma and Huntsville had residents who came from traditions where liquor was not something to outlaw.
In addition, there were Alabamians who simply did not like someone making decisions for them.
Ironically, if the 1901 Constitution had not stripped the vote from African Americans, Black Belt planters who supported prohibition might have been able to stuff the ballot boxes with enough votes to win, but having taken that option away from themselves, the measure lost.
However, the prohibitionists were not done.  Aware that the Alabama Constitution offered ways to bypass the popular will, they introduced a prohibition law in the legislature, and the planter-business-social conservative coalition got it passed.
So it was that in 1915, four years before the 18th Amendment brought prohibition to the whole United States, Alabama went dry.
Sorta.
(To be continued.)
Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.

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