Under current law, Mississippi is still considered a completely “dry state.” However, local governments can hold elections where residents can decide if they want to allow liquor in their county or city or not. Most have voted in favor of it; there are only 29 out of 82 counties in Mississippi that are still dry.
The new bill does not legalize the sale of alcohol in every county. Residents would have had to vote to allow that.
Mississippi has had a long, complex relationship with alcohol throughout its history. Although there have been many fervent attempts to regulate its consumption and sale by state government, it is also a prominent cultural symbol, featured in many works by Mississippi’s famous writers and musicians.
William Faulkner, for example, is known for his love of whiskey and his distaste for Prohibition. A bootlegger was an important character in his novel, “Sanctuary.” Many blues songs written in Mississippi have featured alcohol, including John Lee Hooker’s version of “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” and “Sittin’ here Drinkin’” by Muddy Waters.
Temperance efforts in Mississippi, mostly led by members of the Christian church, began in the early 1800s.
Prohibition Convention Committee member Bishop C.B. Galloway referred to alcohol in 1878 in the Daily Clarion, now the Clarion-Ledger, as a “public and dreaded evil” that caused good men to commit sins and embarrass themselves.
In 1839, a law was passed that made it illegal to purchase less than a gallon of alcohol at once, which had a major impact on local taverns. Perpetrators were imprisoned from anywhere from one week to three months and had to pay a fine of between $200 to $500.
The public reaction to that new law was vehement. Lawmaker Henry Foote was burned in effigy in Jackson for his work on the legislation, according to “Prohibition in Mississippi,” a book by Rev. Thomas Jefferson Bailey, superintendent of the Anti-Saloon League of Mississippi in 1917. The law was repealed less than three years later.
Dozens of temperance laws were enacted in the Mississippi Legislature in the 1800s, including one in 1873 that mandated that if any state officeholders were “found drunk, or in a state of intoxication from the use of intoxicating liquors,” they be charged with a high misdemeanor and removed from office.
Mississippi was the first state to pass some form of prohibition in 1908, about a decade before the 18th Amendment made Prohibition the law of the land in the U.S. Mississippi was the first state to ratify the 18th Amendment.
In 1933, when the 21st Amendment ended Prohibition, it was ratified by 36 states in 288 days. However, in Mississippi, the measure stalled for decades.
The subject of alcohol became a major controversial political issue in Mississippi, according to the late orator and former state Rep. Ed Perry of Oxford.
“The worst question you could be asked was how you felt about whiskey,” Perry said in a filmed speech.
A speech about the legalization of whiskey in the early 1950s by lawmaker and judge Soggy Sweat is now famous. When asked how he felt about whiskey, Sweat avoided answering the question by presenting two sides of the argument.
“If when you say ‘whiskey’ you mean the devil’s brew, the poison scourge, the bloody monster, that defiles innocence, dethrones reason, destroys the home, creates misery and poverty, yea, literally takes the bread from the mouths of little children ... then certainly I am against it,” Sweat starts out.
Then, he changes course.
“But if when you say ‘whiskey’ you mean the oil of conversation, the philosophic wine, the ale that is consumed when good fellows get together, that puts a song in their hearts and laughter on their lips ... if you mean that drink, the sale of which pours into our treasuries untold millions of dollars. ... then certainly I am for it,” he says.
In 1966, Mississippi became the last state to repeal its statewide Prohibition law and pass the current law allowing counties to decide for themselves whether they wanted to legalize liquor sales. The distribution of alcohol in Mississippi is now state-controlled. The Mississippi Department of Alcohol Beverage Control imports, stores and sells 2,850,000 cases of spirits and wines annually.
Leah Willingham is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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