What Can We Learn From Prohibition? - Part One

This article is by YES member Josh Lorenzo

Prohibition: what was supposed to be an alcohol-free dream soon turned into a vicious nightmare. When Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in January 1919, many saw alcohol as an evil force that caused nothing but crime, poverty, and violence. Few expected that banning it would only inflame the issues. In this four-part series, we'll examine Prohibition, why it failed, and what we can learn from it.

Temperance, or abstinence from alcohol, in America originated during the Second Great Awakening in the early 1800s. Many saw alcoholism as a serious issue, especially women and Protestants. However, the temperance movement wouldn't gain national attention until 1873 during a series of non-violent, women-led protests called the Women's Crusades. A year later, the Women's Christian Temperance Union formed as the first nationwide temperance group. They fought hard to bring alcoholism to the forefront of national issues. More and more, going dry seemed to be a valid course.

1893 was a big year for the temperance movement. That year, in Oberlin, Ohio, the Anti-Saloon League was formed. The ASL was the first lobbying group for temperance. The WCTU supported a range of social and labor issues alongside temperance, at least until 1898. By contrast, the ASL was a single-issue group. They also applied pressure politics, choosing to support politicians for their stance on alcohol. They never aligned with a single party. This tactic was remarkably successful: in Ohio, they once managed to replace seventy state representatives and the popular Republican governor with new, pro-temperance politicians.

The rise of the Anti-Saloon League came during a time of greater upheaval in the US. First was a wave of millions of immigrants in the years following the Civil War. These immigrants, who were mostly Catholics and Jews from Southern and Eastern Europe seeking a better life, often faced social discrimination from non-immigrant Americans. Immigrants were perceived as job-stealers, criminals, and leeches who would bring nothing but poverty and violence. Groups like the ASL and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union used this anti-immigrant sentiment to their advantage and integrated xenophobia into their rhetoric.

Second was the rise of Jim Crow. The Compromise of 1877 and the election of Rutherford B. Hayes saw the end of Reconstruction. The end of Reconstruction began Jim Crow, the name of a series of laws, especially in the South, that segregated and systemically discriminated against Blacks. Blacks rapidly lost many of the rights they gained in the past two decades and faced increasing discrimination. As a result, millions fled to the North in what is called the Great Migration. Things would only get worse after the Plessy v. Ferguson case in 1896, in which the Supreme Court ruled segregation wasn’t unconstitutional.

Anti-Black racism played a large role in the increase of Southern support for temperance. This came to a head in 1906 Atlanta, where racial tensions were at an all-time high. Whites were apprehensive of a rising African American middle-class, compounded by unfounded fears of alcohol making Blacks violent. Then, a conspiracy about Black-owned saloons running secret child sex rings made the rounds. A bloody massacre ensued. 25 Blacks were lynched, their businesses looted, and their homes destroyed.

Before the Atlanta Massacre, Southern support for temperance was minimal. The temperance movement at that point was mostly confined to Protestant whites in the rural Northeast and Midwest, who feared the rise of Catholicism and minority groups in American society. Afterward, however, more Southern whites got behind the idea that alcohol made Blacks "violent savages." This is although whites instigated the riots. By 1909, five Southern states went dry - North Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and Oklahoma. These laws closed Black businesses, shut down community gatherings, and gave cops and Klansmen a justification to harass minorities.

The presidency of Woodrow Wilson was perhaps the peak of Jim Crow’s ascension. Wilson was a hardcore racist, even for his time. He was also an ardent neo-Confederate. During his two terms, he reinforced segregation and, in 1915, screened the film The Birth of a Nation at the White House. The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith as an adaptation of the novel The Clansman, was a shocking display of support for the Ku Klux Klan and Confederate nostalgia. Immediately following the White House screening, the KKK would rise again, this time on a national level. The Klan would play a large role later on in enforcing temperance.

Finally, American entry into World War I would come with a spike in anti-Germanism. Germans typically owned America’s largest saloons and distilleries. They had been subject to racist propaganda by temperance groups for years. The ASL had already been producing cartoons depicting greedy, crooked caricatures of Germans bent on destroying American life with alcohol way before the war. Many temperance leaders themselves were open about their anti-Germanism. For example, ASL leader Purley Baker said Germans “Eat like gluttons and drink like swine.” Another ASL leader named William H. Anderson proclaimed, “Everything in this country that is pro-German is anti-American. Everything that is pro-German must go.” Anderson also attacked Jews, Italians, Irish, and other “unwashed and wild-eyed foreigners.”

The Eighteenth Amendment was ratified in January 1919, which banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol. The Volstead Act was passed nine months later to determine how to enforce it. Thus would begin thirteen long, hard years known as the Prohibition, a period marred by violence, crime, and worsening racial tension. It would take years, even decades, to overcome the effects of this. In the next part of this series, we’ll talk more about the consequences of Prohibition.


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