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How a Union Co. lawman helped end MS’s hypocrisy regarding alcohol

Historical Marker : FIRST LEGAL LIQUOR STORE 1304 Hwy. 82 East, Greenville MS

New Albany, MS- About a hundred people learned about “Mississippi’s tortured history with alcohol” during the October 20th Museum Moments program at the Union County Heritage Museum.

Judge Rodney Shands gave an entertaining and informative narrative about Mississippi’s long and often ironic history with alcohol. Shands, a New Albany attorney and businessman, previously served as a judge of the First Mississippi Chancery Court District.

Mississippi was the first state in the U.S. to allow communities to consider the prohibition of alcohol. The entire state became “bone dry” in 1908, long before the 18th amendment (prohibition) went into effect. The powerful influence of many Protestant churches in Mississippi, often aligned with their local bootleggers, kept alcohol illegal throughout the state.

During the last decades of the 19th century, “temperance” organizations had campaigned hard throughout the country for the prohibition of alcohol. The United States Congress passed the 18th Amendment on Dec. 17, 1917, and sent it to the states for ratification. On January 7, 1918, Mississippi became the very first state to ratify the prohibition of alcohol. Over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto, Congress passed the Volstead Act, providing for the enforcement of the 18th amendment.

In Mississippi and elsewhere, people continued to consume alcohol, creating a long and widely supported civil disobedience. A huge criminal class was created, ranging from thousands of sole-proprietor bootleggers to massive, gang-run bootlegging operations in America’s towns and cities. Besides prohibition spawning many criminal enterprises, it became clear that the law had little impact on the actual consumption of alcohol in United States and that enforcement was impossible.

Rodney Shands discussed MS's relationship with alcohol sales at Museum Moments, October 20, 2016.

Rodney Shands discussed MS’s relationship with alcohol sales at Museum Moments, October 20, 2016.

Congress passed the 21st amendment, repealing the 18th, during the first few weeks of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first administration. Michigan was the first state to approve the 21st amendment on April 10, 1933, and Utah became the 36th state to reject prohibition on December 5. Prohibition having been repealed by three-quarters of the states, national prohibition of alcohol ended about fifteen years after its enactment. Mississippi, however, chose to maintain its state-wide “dry” status and to continue its “wink and nod” enforcement of that law.

In 1944, MS legislators passed the “Black Market Tax Law,” having realized the vast amount of money the state was losing because it was “dry.” The law established a system to issue permits to and collect taxes from bootleggers, though the possession, transport and/or sale of alcohol remained illegal.

In 1964, the State of Mississippi collected 4.5 million dollars from the sale of bootleg beer, wine and whiskey from the 18 wholesalers and over 1700 bootleggers who held MS permits. This “wink and nod” enforcement of the law was widely known and criticized nationally. Then, Thomas Shelton, formerly of New Albany, took the radical stance that laws should be obeyed by all.

Rodney Shands recounted the story of the dramatic manner in which Mississippi law regarding alcohol was modified 50 years ago:

Among the most farcical ironies of “dry” Mississippi was the fact that the state imposed a tax on the contraband alcohol; the tax on the unlawful hooch was routinely collected, the money going to the state treasury.

The annual Mardi Gras Ball was underway at the then-new Jackson Country Club on the north side of the capital city. It was a huge affair, perhaps Jackson’s best pretense to a “high society” event. Distilled spirits, champagne and other fine wines were ready to be served to distinguished party goers. Present were Mississippi Governor Paul Johnson, Jr., many state legislators and other well-known and powerful persons.

The the party was raided by the “new Sheriff in town,” who had recently replaced the former sheriff at the insistence of local judges, citing the man’s “often soused” condition. Hinds County Sheriff Thomas Shelton had issued a previous warning to the Country Club about the serving of illegal alcohol. Shelton and his deputies raided the country club, broke into the storage cabinets and hauled away cases and cases of liquid evidence that proved the laws of the great and sovereign state of Mississippi were being flagrantly violated.

The mayor of Jackson was on his way to the party at the country club when he heard about the raid on his police radio, turned around, and went home. The Sheriff’s raid was reported with glee in many newspapers, both state-wide and national, thus shining a very bright light on Mississippi’s long-standing, hypocritical dealings with alcohol.

Although he had campaigned and been elected governor of Mississippi as a “dry” — one opposed to the legal sale of alcohol — Paul Johnson, Jr. was a nimble politician. He quickly urged the passage of new legislation that would give Mississippi’s cities and counties the “local option” of going “wet,” while the state officially remains “dry.” This legal maneuver created yet another irony: the state of Mississippi became, and still is, the sole legal distributor of liquor and wine in this “dry” state. Johnson later said that Louisiana liquor dealers had offered him 2 million dollars to veto the bill.

Hinds County Sheriff Thomas Shelton, a native of Union County who had previously been sheriff here, had exposed the hypocrisy of Mississippi’s official stand on alcohol. According to Shands, Shelton was not known as an opponent of alcohol, but was a strong character who did believe in enforcing the law. Shelton said he was “just enforcing the law” when he raided the Jackson Country Club.

During the recent few years New Albany voters decided to take the “local option” to become wet, as have many other north Mississippi counties. Current income to Mississippi is over $100 million, on the state’s sale of cases from their warehouse to dealers alone, not counting income from liquor stores, convenience stores, restaurants, etc., where the liquor is taxed a second time when sold to the public.

Though Thomas Shelton’s actions exposed the hypocrisy of MS’s alcohol dealings and reverberated throughout the nation, pushing the state to bring its law more in line with its actions, MS has still not approved the 21st Amendment. So, 83 years after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the sale of alcohol remains a violation of Mississippi state law in areas that have not exercised the “local option” to opt out of the “dry” state law.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Boutique bourbon manufacturer Woodford Reserve has created a bottle commemorating the 50th anniversary of the passage of MS’s “local option” law, which came about as a result of Thomas Shelton’s actions. Shouldn’t someone hoist a glass to Thomas Shelton when a round of drinks is enjoyed in Mississippi — especially here in his home county?

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