Efforts to limit or prohibit the sale of alcohol have a long and complex history in Mississippi. It passed its first statewide Prohibition law in 1907 and was the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment, which prohibited the sale of alcohol across the country. In 1966 Mississippi became the last state to repeal its statewide Prohibition law.
Supporters of temperance made occasional efforts to limit the sale of alcohol in the antebellum period, beginning with the Mississippi State Temperance Society in 1833 and the Sons of Temperance and Sisters of Temperance in the late 1840s. Far more organized and aggressive efforts began in the mid-1870s. The first successful effort to limit the sale of alcohol was an 1874 law that required anyone wanting to sell alcohol to obtain a license from a majority of the area’s registered voters plus a majority of all women over age fourteen.
New organizations flourished from the 1880s into the 1910s. The Anti-Saloon League and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) became major forces in the state’s public and political life, first calling for local option and then pushing for statewide Prohibition. Leaders included Harriet Kells of the WCTU, Baptist minister James H. Gambrell, and Methodist minister Charles B. Galloway. The first major success of the Prohibition movement occurred when the legislature passed a local-option law allowing counties to prohibit the sale of alcohol. By the early twentieth century the sale of alcohol was illegal or seriously limited in a large majority of the state’s counties, with the counties along the Mississippi River and the Gulf Coast the primary exceptions. In 1907, after Govs. Andrew Longino and Edmond Noel pressed for statewide Prohibition, the legislature passed a strict bill that went into effect at the end of 1908. It allowed druggists to sell some alcohol for medicinal purposes, allowed people to make and drink homemade wine, and penalized liquor sales with fines and short jail terms. Ten years later, Mississippi became the first state to ratify the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which banned the sale of alcohol.
Supporters of Prohibition in Mississippi argued from religious, economic, and racial perspectives. Many religious leaders, especially Baptists and Methodists, emphasized that alcohol led to self-indulgence, violence, and bad company. Most advocates of Prohibition, both male and especially female, said alcohol posed a threat to stable and happy homes. Other supporters of Prohibition believed that limiting excessive drinking would produce better workers and a more stable climate for economic change. Members of both groups argued that Prohibition was necessary to clean up the state’s growing towns.
Prohibition and race had a complex relationship in Mississippi. Some white supporters of Prohibition claimed that African American men who drank too much in saloons posed particularly dangerous threats to white women. The rhetoric of Prohibition often referred to the purity of the white home and the dangers of African American infringement into public space. Jackson’s Kells, editor of the Mississippi White Ribbon, the WCTU journal, condemned “drunken, ignorant black men” while discussing how Prohibition could elevate home life. Partly in response, some African American leaders aggressively supported Prohibition as part of programs to promote uplift and respectability. Some early black and white Prohibitionists worked together, and African American leader J. J. Spellman of Hinds County served as secretary of the first statewide Prohibition convention in 1881. However, in the Delta counties with large African American majorities, political leaders rarely supported Prohibition or aggressive enforcement of it, in part because planters wanted a happy workforce and in part because some members of the Delta elite enjoyed alcohol.
Supporters had great confidence that the new law would eliminate most alcohol sales in the state. The author of the Prohibition bill, C. H. Alexander, took pleasure in his belief that “nowhere has the victory been more marked and complete than in Mississippi, which, through a brave, honest, law-loving, home-loving legislature, drove the legalized traffic from the whole state.”
With the state’s long history of Prohibition, illegal alcohol became important in much of Mississippi literature and music. The number of blues songs about drinking and drunkenness make clear that alcohol was widely available but also potentially destructive. Richard Wright detailed how African American hotel employees bought illegal alcohol for white hotel customers. William Faulkner, who loved whiskey and made disparaging comments about Prohibition laws and their enforcement, made a bootlegger an important character in Sanctuary. The characters in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof drink nearly constantly despite the fact that the play is set at a time when the purchase of alcohol was against the law.
In 1966 Mississippi finally did away with its statewide Prohibition. The state’s voters had overturned the repeal of Prohibition in 1934 and again in 1952, and the legislature debated repeal again in 1960 and 1964 without changing the law. Despite the fact that alcohol sales were illegal, Mississippi had since 1944 been in the unusual and to some embarrassing position of taxing alcohol at 10 percent of its sales price. Several court challenges had argued that the tax in effect nullified the Prohibition law, and some counties, especially along the Mississippi River and on the Gulf Coast, openly sold alcohol. A combination of forces, including the determination of Gov. Paul B. Johnson, led to the passage of the 1966 law that allowed counties to determine their own alcohol policies and set up a new state agency to tax and license the sale of alcohol.
Today, county governments make and enforce the rules governing alcohol sales. The easiest generalization about contemporary alcohol laws is that they vary widely and have numerous idiosyncrasies, as county governments try to balance the demands of religion, health, education, and business with interests of tourism and personal freedom. Visitors and even residents sometimes find the range of laws hard to understand, and numerous counties have “last chance” establishments that offer alcohol to travelers before they cross into dry counties. While counties debate when to serve alcohol, what sort of establishments can sell it, and what kind of alcohol they can sell, state government policies seem most concerned with the health issues of drunk driving and alcoholism.
- Clayton Sledge Allen, “The Repeal of Prohibition in Mississippi” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1992)
- Anne Ophelia Bailey, “A Statistical Analysis of the Liquor Referenda in Mississippi, 1934 and 1952” (master’s thesis, Mississippi State College, 1953)
- Stephen Cresswell, Rednecks, Redeemers, and Race: Mississippi after Reconstruction, 1877–1917 (2006)
- Miranda Culley, “‘Hooray for Prohibition!’: Evangelicals and the Southern Temperance Movement” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2008)
- William Graham Davis, “Attacking ‘The Matchless Evil’: Temperance and Prohibition in Mississippi, 1817–1905” (PhD dissertation, Mississippi State University, 1975)
- Thomas Spight Hines Jr., “Mississippi and the Prohibition Controversy” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 1960)
- Timothy A. Nicholas, “‘The Spirit of an Age’: The Prohibition Press of Mississippi, 1876–1890” (PhD dissertation, University of Southern Mississippi, 1996)