The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), Alcohol, & Prohibition
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
One of the major supporters of National Prohibition of alcohol in the U.S. (1920-1933) was the anti-alcohol Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
- The Ku Klux Klan was “revived in Atlanta in 1915 to defend Prohibition,” which existed in Georgia at that time.* 1
- “Prohibition became one of the Klan’s leading issues” 2 and the Klan strongly supported both Prohibition and its strict enforcement. 3
- The Ku Klux Klan “adopted prohibition as a central rallying cry.” 4
- “Enforcing Prohibition was a cornerstone of the KKK’s ‘reform’ agenda.” 5
- “Enforcement of Prohibition, in fact, was a central, and perhaps the strongest, goal of the Ku Klux Klan.” 6
- “Demon Rum (and the support of Prohibition) was the most obsessive issue on the Klan mind next to the pope.” 7
- The KKK’s “support for Prohibition represented the single most important bond between Klansmen throughout the nation..” 8 (Emphasis in original.)
- Because it so strongly “opposed the sale of alcohol,” 9 the new Klan “attacked bootlegging.” 10
- “The Klan's resurgence in the 1920s partially stemmed from their role as the extreme militant wing of the temperance movement. In Arkansas, as elsewhere, the newly formed Ku Klux Klan marked bootleggers as one of the groups that needed to be purged from a morally upright community. In 1922, 200 Klansmen torched saloons that had sprung up in Union County in the wake of the oil discovery boom. The national Klan office ended up in Dallas, Texas, but Little Rock was the home of the Women of the Ku Klux Klan. The first head of this female auxiliary was a former president of the Arkansas WCTU.” 11
The rapid growth of the new Klan probably reflected the fact that “It promised to reform politics, to enforce prohibition, and to champion traditional morality.” 22
- There was much interaction and overlap in membership between the Klan and other prohibition supporters. For example, a top leader of the Klan, Edward Young Clarke, raised funds for both the Klan and the Anti-Saloon League. 12
- Its enforcement of prohibition was one of the factors “most responsible for the Klan’s great popularity” in some states and communities. 13
- The KKK challenged bootleggers by organizing armed patrols to intercept shipments of alcohol. 14
- “The Ku Klux Klan associated itself with the campaign against alcohol…. One of the major KKK activities in the 1920s was rooting out bootleggers and breaking up speakeasies.” 15
- “widespread were Klan efforts to put bootleggers out of business.” 16
- On occasion, Ku Klux Klan tarred, feathered and ran bootleggers out of town. 17
- Some bootleggers would have preferred being tarred and feathered. “In ‘Bloody Williamson,’ a county in far southern Illinois, battles between the operators of wide-open taverns and the ‘dry’ Ku Klux Klan killed 14 people in 1924-25.” 18
- Although Prohibition became increasingly unpopular with the passage of time, the KKK strongly and actively opposed its repeal. 19
Prohibitionists often advocated strong measures against those who did not comply with Prohibition. One suggested that the government distribute poisoned alcohol beverages through bootleggers (sellers of illegal alcohol) and acknowledged that several hundred thousand Americans would die as a result, but thought the cost well worth the enforcement of Prohibition. Others suggested that those who drank should be:
In the 1920s, over 25 percent of native-born men in the entire state of Indiana were official members of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s membership was many times larger than any of the popular veterans' organizations and was even larger than the Methodist church, the state's biggest Protestant denomination. And women‘s auxiliaries added even more members. 21
- hung by the tongue beneath an airplane and flown over the country
- exiled to concentration camps in the Aleutian Islands
- excluded from any and all churches
- forbidden to marry
- placed in bottle-shaped cages in public squares
- forced to swallow two ounces of caster oil
- executed, as well as their progeny to the fourth generation. 20
The anti-alcohol sentiment of the KKK (although not its methods) is now carried forward by a number of neo-temperance groups.
* Needles to say, the new Klan was also anti-African American, anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant.
filed under: Prohibition