In Alabama, there are 24 of the state’s 67 counties where you can’t buy liquor. Except in 23 of those 24 counties there is one city where you can. If you’re in Kansas don’t volunteer to bring the beer for the Memorial Day, Independence Day or Labor Day picnic, because you can’t buy beer on those holidays. In Kentucky you can’t buy alcohol on Election Day. The 21st Amendment which repealed the 18th Amendment still left the doors open for states and municipalities to set their own rules. Mississippi didn’t give up on Prohibition until 1966.
So now as we approach the 100th anniversary of Prohibition we find as part of its legacy a sometimes bazaar, but nearly always inconsistent set of liquor laws that ensures that Americans who live in different parts of the country have different rules to live by. But the mixed up alcohol regulations are fairly trivial compared to the influence Prohibition had on American lifestyle, culture and politics.
For one thing, Prohibition irreversibly changed nightlife in America. Tens of thousands of saloons closed. Ten of thousands of speakeasies opened. The image of the saloon drinker is a workman with a mug of lager set up next to his lunchpail. The image of the speakeasy patron is a young, stylish man or woman sipping cocktails in a carefree party atmosphere. It is the speakeasy that created the romantic image of the “roaring twenties” and one of the biggest changes is that it was about, and henceforth would always be about, men and women.
It was the young, urbane speakeasy crowd that would set the tone for style in America. While Prohibition may in some ways be viewed as the last gasp of a moralistic, conservative Protestant America, the result of Prohibition for many meant the abandonment of the restrictive social and sexual mores that went with conservative religion.
Not only did men start hanging out with women, but there were also some glimpses of an integrated society emerging. It is easy to make too much of this as America remained a very segregated country and even when white revelers headed up to Harlem for the jazz clubs, many of these clubs still only had black doormen and musicians while the patrons were as white as they were downtown. But there were also some “black and tans,” truly integrated clubs where black and white customers intermingled on an even footing.
And the roaring 20’s introduced America, and all Americans, to jazz. This would not be the last time that a predominately African American inspired musical form would be adopted by Americans of all races and become part of the national culture. Some 30 years later primarily black rhythm and blues musicians would provide the foundation for rock n roll.
Our politics as well reflect changes that came about because of Prohibition. Prior to this era voting lines were still largely drawn according to the country’s division over slavery and the Civil War. The Republicans were the party of Lincoln. As such they had the black vote locked in while the white South was dominated by the Democrats.
All this began to change with the issue of banning alcohol. Prohibition was the solution of white, Protestant, rural America. On the other side of the line stood the working class, the immigrants and the city dwellers. This clear division showed itself at the polls in the 1928 Presidential election between the Democrat, a “wet”, Catholic New Yorker, Al Smith, and the GOP candidate, an Iowa born backer of Prohibition (at least publically) Herbert Hoover. Hoover won that vote, but by 1932 Franklin Roosevelt and the Democrats were swept into office and in just about every election since the Democrats have carried the urban, ethnic and minority vote. It was Prohibition that changed black voters’ perception of the GOP from the party of emancipation to the party of repression and the KKK. On Election Day all over the country we still view the Democrats ability to marshall the black and ethnic vote as a key indicator. And likewise we still see Republicans at the state and local level trying to find ways to disenfranchise these voters.
And finally, Prohibition turned out to be something of a trial run for what later generations would call the war on drugs. The alcohol ban created the idea that drinking was a crime While it is doubtful that most Americans shared that perception, it is what various law enforcement groups ran with and as a result our prisons filled up with non-violent offenders, criminals whose offense might be brewing a little home wine and selling some to your neighbors.
While the speakeasy folks made the twenties roar in a relatively undisturbed manner, the brunt of enforcement came down on immigrant and black populations. How different is that from what is happening in America with respect to marijuana. Blacks and Hispanics make up a disproportionate volume of incarcerated recreational drug offenders in our prisons. And while polls and referendums clearly show most Americans support legalization, we once again have a right wing administration preaching heightened enforcement through Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Few today see Prohibition as anything other than an abject failure. It didn’t stop Americans from drinking. It gave rise to a widespread criminal underbelly. And it only exacerbated the already existing divisions in our society. And while Prohibition has been repealed, those divisions have certainly not gone away and if anything have become more acute.
The War on Alcohol, Prohibition and the Rise of the American State, Lisa McGirr, 2017.
Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, Daniel Okrent, 2010
Prohibition: Thirteen Years That Changed America, Edward Samuel Behr, 1996