On the night of 4 February 1966 Hinds County chief deputy sheriff Tom Shelton and three of his deputies conducted a liquor raid at a reception at the Jackson Country Club. For years the Junior League of Jackson’s annual Carnival Ball had been an important social event, and that night the country club was playing host to the king’s reception, which followed the ball itself. Much to the displeasure of the partygoers, Shelton and his men seized roughly ten thousand dollars’ worth of liquor from the club, arrested the assistant bar manager, and produced one of the more subdued receptions in the history of the Carnival Ball. More important than this immediate result was the way in which public reactions to this raid and its legal consequences led to the repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi.
While the Twenty-First Amendment had ended national Prohibition in 1933, the State of Mississippi had chosen to continue the “noble experiment” by outlawing the sale, possession, or consumption of hard liquor and wine within the state’s borders. In 1959 Oklahoma repealed its Prohibition laws, leaving Mississippi the only remaining dry state. However, much as had been the case during national Prohibition, drinkers found a way to get their liquor. In fact, the State of Mississippi even facilitated the process of obtaining liquor, and it did so quite efficiently.
Although the sale of liquor had been illegal in Mississippi since 1908, the state had long imposed some form of tax on alcoholic beverages. As long as the “penalty” tax had been paid, state officials did not obstruct liquor sales. The most famous of these taxes was undoubtedly sec. 10108–01 of the 1942 Mississippi Code, better known as the Black Market Tax. The code imposed a tax of roughly 10 percent on the sale of all illegal goods but was collected exclusively on the sale of liquor. The tax came into use in 1944, but not until more than a decade later was its full potential unleashed.
In 1956 William Winter took office as Mississippi’s state tax collector and immediately saw the deficiencies in the application of the black market tax. Winter knew that all the liquor in Mississippi came from Louisiana, so he worked with the Louisiana Department of Revenue to give the process more transparency, thus greatly improving his office’s efficiency in collecting the taxes. Over time, the revenue generated from this system became vital to the state’s annual budget. Winter himself benefited from the tax as well, because he received a percentage of the taxes his office collected. A 1962 Life magazine article noted that Winter’s annual income of sixty thousand dollars more than doubled the governor’s salary of twenty-five thousand dollars and that Winter was the second-highest-paid public official in the United States, trailing only the president. Despite the fact he benefited substantially from this hypocritical system of taxing an illegal item, Winter, like many others, had for some time advocated the abolition of both his office and the state’s Prohibition laws.
The Jackson Country Club raid exposed many of these hypocrisies to the general public, and support grew for addressing the Prohibition issue. Pressure on the legislature to act increased further as a result of the court case resulting from the arrest of the assistant club manager, Charles Wood. Wood and his attorneys claimed that the state had implicitly repealed Prohibition laws by taxing liquor and by randomly enforcing those laws—for example, Vicksburg, Natchez, and the Gulf Coast had open liquor sales, while other parts of the state were totally dry.
The case went to the Mississippi Supreme Court, raising the specter that the court would overturn the Prohibition laws and leave the state with no controls on the sale of liquor. With the Supreme Court ruling imminent, legislators began considering a variety of bills to repeal Prohibition, leading wets and drys to reach a compromise under which the state government became the sole wholesaler for all liquor stores in Mississippi. Gov. Paul B. Johnson signed the bill into law in May 1966, and the Mississippi State Tax Commission created the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control.
- Clayton Sledge Allen, “The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1992)
- Joseph Stone Green, “The Last Drinking Drys: The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi” (honors thesis, University of Mississippi, 2008)
- Norman Ritter, Life (11 May 1962)