By: Joe L. Coker
Reviewed by: Edward Reynolds
The University Press of Kentucky, 2007
Considering that the South has always been more conservative than the North, it’s fascinating that 150 years ago the North was leading the charge in favor of the prohibition of liquor while the South defended imbibing as a way of life. Booze was a southern cultural staple often guzzled as human fuel as motivation for laborers in the fields who drank while harvesting. Drinking was also a vital extension of southern hospitality. The South sneered at efforts to outlaw whiskey, primarily because prohibition was tied to social causes such as the abolition of slavery.
Samford University religion professor Joe L. Coker has written a fascinating, thorough history of the strange, evolving relationship between liquor and the South, especially southern evangelicals’ dalliances with the demon rum. It’s nothing short of astonishing that Bible-thumping Christians, including Primitive Baptists, were divided on temperance. Some Baptists said grace before pouring rounds of whiskey. Coker writes hilarious anecdotes of evangelicals defending drinking, including a Georgia Baptist preacher who carried a hollow cane full of whiskey which he sipped from during his sermons to prove that he could imbibe while delivering the word of God and not get drunk.
Initially, even the Puritans viewed alcohol as a positive thing, a “good blessing from God.” Alcohol consumption escalated dramatically between the American Revolution and the War of 1812, Coker says. Binge drinking evolved from a communal activity in colonial and revolutionary days to a solitary indulgence. Support for temperance in the South declined in the 1840s, though Baptists stuck with notions of prohibition until the mid-1850s, longer than Methodists and Presbyterians. President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis objected to prohibition because he believed it “violated individual rights and local sovereignty.”
Despite being deeply embedded in southern culture, alcohol production slowed during the Civil War as grain and corn were needed for food. Conversion of crops to alcohol was reserved for hospitals. Some tee-totaler evangelicals blamed the Confederacy’s battlefield defeats on soldiers’ being drunk, while others believed that the Yankees won because God was punishing the South for embracing slavery and booze. Predictably, alcohol consumption in the South increased after the Civil War.
Though racism in the South has been widely documented, it’s still mind-numbing to read Coker’s accounts of racist beliefs held by evangelical Christians in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In the two decades following the Civil War, the South refused to recognize the July Fourth holiday. Despite the emergence of the New South movement, which was sympathetic to the plight of black Americans seeking freedom, a nostalgic look at the antebellum South and its accompanying slavery known as the Lost Cause was embraced by not only southerners but northerners as well. Coker writes, “By the 1880s, northerners, too, had developed a soft spot in their hearts for the romanticized mythos for the splendorous bygone South.” Plantation-themed literature and “plantation romance novels”—written by
northern authors—became popular.
Southern evangelicals seeking to demonize liquor made black Americans their scapegoats in the white Christians’ anti-whiskey crusade. The black man was viewed as child-like, though capable of behaving himself as long as he was denied whiskey. Coker quotes an 1880s editorial in The Alabama Baptist newspaper: “A little learning is a dangerous thing for the Negro, and but a few of them have the capacity, the brain power, to get more than a little.” The Alabama Baptist editor added that blacks were designed by God for simple labor. Emphasizing that the black man is not a dangerous beast if respected, the editor concluded, “He is not of a vicious, spiteful race, when properly treated…. He is, as a race, a hewer of wood and a drawer of water, made so by the unalterable decree of God.” Other preachers condemned the black man as his own worst enemy for imbibing and seeking the company of northerners. “The Negro is to blame largely for this state of things,” wrote one evangelical activist. “For if the Negro had realized that the best white people of the South were his best friends and he had quit ganging with the liquor crowd and let Yankee-Doodle alone he would have been much better off today.”
By the turn of the century, the image of black men had been recast from that of Sambo, the childlike slave, to the “black beast” after the publication of Charles Carroll’s book The Negro a Beast. Alcohol was condemned as the catalyst that transformed black men into wild creatures who raped white women. A 1903 editorial in the Alabama Christian Advocate proclaimed, “We are developing a new type of Negro unheard of until recent years, a conscienceless, lawless, fearless brute, led only by his strong animal nature fired by these devilish influences, and ready for rape, robbery, and murder.” Lynchings were justified as the only means of protecting white women. But instead of condemning lynchings, southern evangelicals argued that keeping black men away from alcohol was the only way to stop such outlaw behavior. Prohibitionists began to target black saloons for selling cheap liquor. It was believed, according to Coker, that the inferior ingredients in the cheap whiskey made the black man unable to control his hedonistic urges for sex and violence.
Joe Coker’s Liquor in the Land of the Lost Cause is an eye-opening history of the mystical yet often ugly evolution of booze from a poison portrayed as demonic as any illegal narcotic on the black market today to that of a beloved witch’s brew that guarantees relaxation after a hard day at the office.
Edward Reynolds is a writer living in Birmingham.