Few issues fueled Sooner passions through much of the 20th century more than the prohibition of alcoholic beverages. Reform movements during the 1890-1920 Populist and Progressive Eras had sought to address the social ills of America’s booming cities, industries, land mass, and population. Prominent among them was Prohibition. Its advocates perceived the colossal havoc that alcohol abuse and addiction were wreaking upon immigrant communities, the established social elite, and every corner of society in between.
National organizations like the Anti-Saloon League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union harnessed the energies of vast numbers of Americans, particularly in more socially-conservative Protestant states such as Oklahoma. In addition, the U.S. Congress, aware of the ruinous effects of alcohol on the Indian tribes, prohibited it for 21 years from the eastern half of the new state. The former Indian Territory comprised this area, with its much-higher proportion of Natives than Oklahoma Territory to the west.
Oklahomans voted in Prohibition as an amendment to the state constitution. The legislature then adopted a statute that included an enforcement system.
First Oklahoma Governor Charles Haskell demonstrated that he and other anti-alcohol leaders did not hold their positions half-heartedly or for political purposes when he warned anyone “within our borders disposed to violate (the law).”
A turning point in the state’s Prohibition battle came in 1933. That year, Prohibition opponent Franklin D. Roosevelt took office as president, Congress revoked the Volstead (national Prohibition) Act, and Oklahomans voted in 3.2 percent alcohol beer sales. However, they again rejected liquor sales.
The Drys’ last stand began in 1959, when devout Southern Baptist and teetotaling Governor Raymond Gary led a statewide effort to shift beer sales to a county option basis. This meant that individual counties could outlaw it, potentially removing existing beer sales in the state. Meanwhile, former Tulsa County District Attorney and newly-elected governor J. Howard Edmondson, the youngest person ever to hold the office, possessed a decidedly pro-urban perspective on numerous issues. This included Prohibition.
Edmondson launched an ingenious strategy to overturn it. Counter-intuitively, he unleashed lawmen on a statewide full court press against all alcohol consumption. Bootleggers, private clubs selling liquor, and citizens stopped at a multitude of highway patrol roadblocks while transporting liquor in their vehicles alike were arrested, and had the “book” thrown at them.
Plus, Edmondson and his allies heralded the $100 million of annual revenue that Oklahoma bootleggers raked in. How much better for the state, the governor and his fellow Wets, reasoned, were liquor sales taxes to go to Oklahoma, than those millions of dollars to lawbreaking bootleggers?
The above article is a bonus to the fascinating historical content found within our book
Oklahomans Vol 2 :
Statehood - 2020s
which can be purchased HERE.
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