Reflection: The legacy of Prohibition

By Emma Collins, F/G Scholar

Prohibition was one of a number of political movements that arose during the 1800s. Its proponents included people who were active in the women’s suffrage and the anti-slavery movements, and like those two movements, the movement to outlaw alcohol was ultimately successful with the passage of the 18th Amendment, which took effect January 1920 (Sanneh).

Prohibition’s legacy is mixed. In many schools, students are taught that the movement failed and lead primarily to the black market, bootlegging and an increase in organized crime (Moore). In reality, however, Prohibition did lead to some success; around the time when the movement started in the 1830s, the average American over 15 years old consumed around seven gallons of pure alcohol a year, nearly three times today’s average, and alcohol abuse and its accompanying violence were rampant (“Roots of Prohibition”). In the years following the passage of the 18th Amendment, alcohol use may not have ended, but alcohol consumption declined as did cirrhosis death rates for men and psychiatric hospital admission rates for alcoholic psychosis. Arrests for public intoxication and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922, and estimates show that the overall rate of alcohol consumption declined by 30 percent (Moore).

From this angle, Prohibition appears to be a success, much like the women’s suffrage and anti-slavery movements. In reality, however, Prohibition was laced with racism that came to a head after the 18th Amendment was passed and enabled the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

The racism during the Prohibition Era is evident when one looks at law enforcement at the time. The 18th Amendment was passed in 1919 but took effect in 1920. It brought sweeping changes to a country that was largely unequipped to deal with them. The country did not have a large enough law enforcement to successfully uphold that law. In addition, the law enforcement at both the national and state level during the time was flawed and selective in its enforcement, with certain groups, or “groups that were already identified with criminality,” being targeted (Onion). These groups included immigrants, poor people and African Americans (Onion). The result was that law enforcement began policing areas where those groups primarily lived, and they bore the brunt of the crackdown on alcohol (Garb).

But these groups weren’t only targeted by federal and state law enforcement. As noted above, because the law was so large scale, federal and state law enforcement groups couldn’t handle the enforcement and ensuing violence. In response, citizens began enforcing the law themselves. These citizens were typically people who had been associated with the temperance movement and helped secure the passage of the 18th Amendment. In many cases, those people were white Protestants, and the people they policed or the people they viewed to be most guilty of violating the law were the people they had disliked since long before the temperance movement began: immigrants and African Americans (Onion).

In the era of Prohibition, immigrants were often targeted for their alcohol use. This was already a time when immigrants were disliked. World War I had recently ended, but the country was still swarming with anti-communist and anti-immigrant feelings, so targeting immigrants was an easy jump. In addition, drinking was a part of many immigrants’ cultures, and life was often centered, in part, around a saloon (Onion). One group that was hit particularly hard was Catholic immigrants. For Catholics, alcohol was particularly important because of its significance in Mass. Because they were Catholics, it was assumed they had alcohol, so citizen law enforcement would often raid Catholic homes and destroy what alcohol was found. Targeting alcohol was a direct hit to immigrants and set them up to be targeted by law enforcement (“Nativism and Prohibition”).

Prohibition directly lead to the rebirth of the KKK, and the idea of “citizen enforcement” goes hand-in-hand with the rise of the KKK. During that same time period, between 1920 and 1925, the KKK membership surged to between 2 and 5 million people, largely due to Prohibition (Onion). The KKK branded themselves as the protectors, or defenders, of Prohibition (“KKK”). This “protection” sometimes came in the form of violence. In 1922, for example, 220 Klansmen in Union County torched saloons that had recently opened (“KKK”).

Some of the violent behavior from these citizens, however, was “legalized” in a sense when the Prohibition Unit, an agency in the U.S. Treasury that oversaw enforcing the law, deputized volunteers, including KKK members, to fight the anti-alcohol battle (Sanneh). In one instance in 1923, deputized enforcers, many of them members of the KKK, began a series of raids in Williamson County, Illinois, on bars, distilleries and private homes. More than a dozen people were killed (Sanneh).

During its rebirth, the KKK began attracting people who disliked the “new values and loose morals” associated with the time. This was, after all, the Roaring 20s, so the Klan asserted itself as openly dedicated to preserving society’s law and order (“Nativism and Prohibition”). The group used the fears of white protestants to build membership by addressing the need to clean up the communities. Outwardly, that meant tackling the problems associated with Prohibition, such as bootlegging. Inwardly, however, that meant targeting the KKK’s traditional enemies: immigrants and African Americans. Prohibition provided them with a legal way to justify targeting those two groups (Onion).

In the South, Prohibition took on a particularly racist angle. Some southerners were concerned that “allowing” African Americans to have alcohol would increase violence and the sexual assault of white women. As protectors of America, the white race and white women, it was the job of KKK members to prevent that concern from becoming a reality (“Nativism and Prohibition”).

Perhaps the strongest evidence that the KKK was undeniably entangled in Prohibition was the overlap in membership between KKK members and other Prohibition groups. For example, Little Rock, Arkansas, was the home of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan, and the group’s first leader was a former president of the Arkansas Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, one of the largest temperance groups (“KKK”). Some members of the Anti-Saloon League, another prominent Prohibition group, also had ties to the KKK (Pegram).

The 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, just 14 years after its passage. But the effects of its 14-year existence are still felt today. The FBI’s power grew during that time, and while the Prohibition Unit ceased to exist, the power of the FBI is still evident today (Sanneh). And a mere 40 years later in the 1970s and 1980s, America’s war on drugs, launched by President Richard Nixon, effectively began (“War on Drugs”). This new-Prohibition movement may have had a different focus, but many of its targets were the same: immigrants, poor people and African Americans.

Works Cited
Garb, Margaret. “Racism Runs Dry.” Common Reader, 16 June 2017, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

“KKK (Ku Klux Klan), Alcohol, & Prohibition: The KKK Supported Prohibition and Defended It.”, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Moore, Mark H. “Actually, Prohibition Was a Success.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Oct. 1989, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

“Nativism and Prohibition.”, The Ohio State University, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Onion, Rebecca. “A New History of Prohibition.” Slate, 12 Dec. 2015, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Pegram, Thomas R. “Hoodwinked: The Anti-Saloon League and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s Prohibition Enforcement.” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, vol. 7, no. 1, 2008, pp. 89–119. JSTOR, JSTOR,

“Roots of Prohibition.” KET, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

Sanneh, Kelefa. “Prohibition and the Penal State.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 31 July 2017, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

“War on Drugs.”, A&E Television Networks, 31 May 2017, Accessed 7 Oct. 2018.

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