There have been two periods of Prohibition of alcoholic beverages in Birmingham. A Jefferson County measure restricting alcohol sales was in force between 1908 and 1911, and a statewide prohibition law was passed in 1907 which took effect in 1909. Another state prohibition law was in effect from July 1, 1915 until 1937.
Meanwhile, national prohibition came into effect with the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in January 1919. This measure was repealed by the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933. Alabama, however, remained dry until the establishment of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Board in 1937.
Early liquor laws
Numerous specific laws against the sale of liquor in particular localities were enacted by the Alabama State Legislature. The first such law applying to Jefferson County was passed in December 1851, restricting the sale of alcohol within a 2-mile radius of the center of Elyton. That law was repealed in January 1860. A month later the first law referencing a specific church was passed, making the sale of alcohol within two miles of Salem Church in Turkey Creek illegal. In December 1871 a similar law barred liquor sales within two miles of the Irondale Furnace. On March 7, 1873 a law was passed forbidding alcohol sales within a two mile radius of "any coaling grounds in Bibb, Jefferson and Tuscaloosa Counties, except incorporated towns.". A number of similar laws were passed through that year's session. In 1876 the prohibition surrounding the New Castle mines was repealed. Alice Furnace got its own 2 1/2 mile buffer on March 1, 1881, although much of that area was within the City of Birmingham and not enforced. The typical radius of the law was increased to three miles in 1881, with prohibitions going up against liquor near Trussville, Crumley Chapel, Pratt Mines, and numerous coaling grounds, coal mines, ore mines, factories, furnaces or rolling mills in Beat 1, Beat 2, Beat 3, Hillman, Woodward, Brock's Gap, Toadvine, Beat 9, Beat 12, Beat 17. When prohibition was enacted in the vicinity of Coalbburg in 1885 the radius was five miles. On the other hand, only a one-mile radius around Avondale Springs was subjected to the prohibition act of February 1887. In 1901 an act forbade the sale of liquor within two miles of Owenton College. The medical dispensaries in Ensley, Warrior and Morris earned their own prohibitions. The last focus of a specific anti-liquor law before county-wide prohibition went into effect was the area within a 1 1/2 mile radius of Dolcito Church.
Jefferson County prohibition
The Alabama State Legislature, under pressure from the Anti-Saloon League, followed on the heels of Georgia's 1907 state-wide alcohol ban by passing a "Local Option" law, giving counties the right to hold referendums on local prohibition measures.
The Jefferson County prohibition campaign was led by mayor George Ward and the Birmingham News, progressive voices that sought to improve the city's image in the wake of a series of bribary scandals involving liquor and gambling interests. Birmingham's “red light” districts, such as Pigeon’s Roost and Scratch Ankle, were also cited as both a public safety concern and a source of negative publicity.
In 1907 Ward and the News began a push for prohibition of alcohol within the city. A special election was held on October 28, 1907. By the time of the vote, Ward had softened his position to favor stronger regulation of saloons as an alternative to outright prohibition. Nevertheless, the city's slim majority of 300 in opposition to the proposal was eclipsed by voters in rural areas who strongly favored the measure. On New Years Day 1908, Jefferson County went officially dry. It had been reported that 120 saloons were closed, and that a number of operators, together responsible for over $300,000 in annual rents, relocated en masse to Chattanooga and Memphis, Tennessee.
The State of Alabama followed with another new law in November 1908 prohibiting the sale of alcohol statewide. Efforts to write the prohibition language into the Alabama Constitution of 1901, signed by Governor B. B. Comer, failed at the ballot box. Prohibition opponent Emmet O'Neal succeeded Comer as Governor after the 1910 general election.
These state and local prohibition laws were not entirely effective, in part because they prohibited only the sale of alcohol, rather than mere possession, thus obliging prosecutors to produce witnesses not only of the presence of liquor or its effect, but of the illegal transaction itself.
Many saloons closed, at least temporarily, when the law first took effect, but most of them appeared to re-open over the course of the following year. Although Brooks Lawrence of the Alabama Anti-Saloon League insisted that nothing stronger than "near beer" was being sold in the city of Birmingham, a correspondent found, on personal inspection, that twenty-four saloons were open on April 27, 1909 with "the same old signs, same old fixtures, same old bar keepers as in 'wet' times," and whiskey and beer was being served openly in all of them. The only difference he could detect in the conduct of the saloon keepers was that they "will not knowingly sell a man or party of men or boys any further liquor when the former believes the purchasers have had all they can safely carry." All around the city "locker clubs" appeared, in which members were given keys to lockers to store their own bottles. In reality, the clubs continued to serve liquor from open bars as before, maintaining the lockers for appearances' sake only.
The writer further investigated whether any convictions had been obtained in the county court for violation of the prohibition law. He was given twenty-two names, of whom all but four were African Americans and only one was wealthy enough to have hired an attorney, but who was convicted in absentia when he failed to appear. Most cases brought in the criminal court appeared to result in mistrials as juries could never agree on a verdict. One bar owner celebrated prohibition, claiming to be saving $1,500 per year under the new system.
In a 1910 publication, leaders of the national temperance movement complained that "Under local dry law for twelve months and under state wide Prohibition now for nearly two full years the benefits of the new policy have been constantly restricted and curtailed by hostile officials and unfriendly political leadership in more or less open alliance with the outlawed liquor dealers." Nevertheless, they held up the amazing population boom of the Magic City, mainly a result of the Greater Birmingham annexations, as proof that "going dry" was a boon to population growth.
In 1911 the Alabama State Legislature passed a new "Parks Local Option Bill," under which Birmingham voted on, August 24 of that same year, to repeal local prohibition by a margin of 6,490 to 5,411. Once again, the strongest support for legal alcohol sales came from the downtown precincts.
Supporters of repeal hosted celebrations throughout the city during the week leading up to the election, and large torch-lit processions filled the streets on the night polls closed.
The new bill rejected ineffective prohibition in favor of "strict regulation," and created an Excise Commission for the city with three commissioners appointed by the Governor. The Commission issued a total of 91 permits to operate saloons, of which only one was issued to an African American. The saloons were not permitted to occupy street corners, and were barred from opening in blocks containing "department stores and other shops frequented by women." The presence of musical instruments, games, or females was enough to shut down a saloon.
The "Carmichael State Prohibition Law" was passed by the Alabama State Legislature in special session in November 1908, to take effect on January 1, 1909. Its effect, like Jefferson County's, was minimal as it could only prohibit the sale of liquor rather than its possession. While temperance forces in the legislature were contemplating a law to criminalize possession in the Spring of 1909, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled on June 30 that the state constitution would view alcohol as property and that no law could abridge the right to possess it so long as it was legally obtained. Thus in the extra session of July 27-August 24 they legislature passed nine additional bills dealing with alcohol sales and urged Governor B. B. Comer to call a constitutional referendum on November 29 to overcome the Supreme Court's objection.
The set of laws passed in that session were reported to be "the most drastic ever enacted by any Legislature in the Union", with one bill running to over 12,000 words, making it a misdemeanor, by one provision, to "dally in any manner with 'demon rum'." Comer did call for the referendum, which was opposed by both Alabama's U.S. Senators and five of nine Representatives. The ballot measure was defeated by a wide margin of about 24,000 votes, winning only a handful of counties. In downtown Birmingham the returns were posted in the windows of the Birmingham Age-Herald's offices to an ever-growing enthusiastic crowd.
Birmingham would again experience prohibition beginning on July 1, 1915 with the Alabama legislature's passage of a total ban of alcohol over the veto of Governor Charles Henderson. The scene, as it appeared to visitors to Birmingham, was described by writer Julian Street:
Alabama has beaten her public bars into soda fountains and quick-lunch rooms, and though her club bars still look like real ones, the drinks served are so soft that no splash occurs when reminiscent tears drop into them.
When we were in Alabama each citizen who so desired was allowed by law to import from outside the State a small allotment of strong drink for personal use, but the red tape involved in this procedure had already discouraged all but the most ardent drinkers, and those found it next to impossible, even by hoarding their "lonesome quarts," and pooling supplies with their convivial friends, to provide sufficient alcoholic drink for a "real party."It was this gentleman who told us that, since the State went dry, the ancient form, "R. S. V. P," on social invitations, had been revised to "B. W. H. P.," signifying, "bring whisky in hip pocket".
We met in Birmingham but one gentleman whose cellars seemed to be well stocked, and the tales of ingenuity and exertion by which he managed to secure ample supplies of liquor were such as to lead us to believe that this matter had become, with him, an occupation to which all other business must give second place.
- Ball, S. Mays (December 23-30, 1909) Leslie's Weekly
- "Prohibition in Alabama" (1910) The Year Book of the United States Brewers' Association. New York: United States Brewers' Association. pp. 197-203
- Alabama's Brilliant Record in American Prohibition Year Book for 1910 (1910) National Prohibition Press, p. 207-208
- Blakey, Leonard Stott (1912) The Sale of Liquor in the South: The History of the Development of a Normal Social Restraint in Southern Commonwealths. Vol. 51 in "Studies in History, Economics and Public Law", Columbia University Faculty of Political Science. New York: Columbia University
- Street, Julian (1917) American Adventures: A Second Trip "Abroad at Home" New York: The Century Co.
- Sellers, James Benson (1943) The Prohibition Movement in Alabama, 1702 to 1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
- Birmingham Area Chamber of Commerce (1976) Century Plus: A Bicentennial Portrait of Birmingham, Alabama 1976 Birmingham: Oxmoor Press, p. 18.
- Harris, Carl V. (1994) "Reforms in Government Control of Negroes in Birmingham, Alabama, 1890-1920" in Donald G. Nieman, ed. Black Southerners and the Law, 1865-1900 Taylor & Francis ISBN 0815314493
- Coker, Joe (2007) "Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause: Southern White Evangelicals and the Prohibition Movement." Lexington, Kentucky: University Press of Kentucky ISBN 0813172802