Mississippi: Bourbon Borealis

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In Mississippi, as the cheerful saying goes, "the drys have their law, the wets have their whisky and the state gets its taxes." Though they have the only statewide prohibition statute in the U.S., Mississippians have no trouble getting a drink in 59 of 82 counties. Bootleggers support the 58-year-old law because they can make a greater profit on liquor when it is illegal. Drinkers also generally approve of the dichotomy, although whisky smuggled from neighboring states costs more than anywhere else in the Southeast.

One bourbon drinker who does not like the setup is Governor Paul Johnson. Last week he urged Mississippians to repeal the prohibition law. The hypocrisy of their back-door drinking habits, he told the legislature, makes Mississippians the "laughingstock of the nation." Said Johnson: "It is high time for someone to stand boldly in the front door and talk plainly, sensibly and honestly about whisky, black-market, taxes, payola, and all of the many-colored hues that make up Mississippi's illegal aurora borealis of prohibition."

The brightest hue of all is green. Though the state has taxed the illegal liquor trade since World War II, it managed to collect only $5,000,000 last year—and revenue-poor Mississippi could use a lot more. Johnson has in mind a state-run distribution system similar to that in Washington state—which with approximately the same population collected $42 million in liquor taxes last year. Johnson proposed to earmark the extra funds for the state's inadequate school system and public health services. Also tourists and conventioneers, who prefer not to break a law to bend an elbow, would probably be more numerous as a result.

Since whisky is a high-proof issue in Mississippi, Johnson did not ask the legislators—who do their drinking in "private clubs" in Jackson—to repeal the law on their own. Instead, he asked them to authorize a referendum by March 15. Drys won the last such vote, in 1952, by 140,681 votes to 80,222. If repeal should fail this time, warned the Governor, he would be forced to "dry up this state like the Sahara."

Johnson even got an uninvited foretaste of how arid the desert might be. The capital's biggest charity event of the year, the Junior League carnival ball, took place three nights after his speech. Along with other celebrators, the Governor dropped in on a Jackson country club for a nightcap only to find that sheriff's deputies had got there first, smashed the liquor-cabinet door with a sledge hammer, and carted off all the whisky, wine and gin to the Hinds County Courthouse. "Paul, can't you do something about this?" a lady in mink beseeched Johnson. "I made my stand, I took my chance," the Governor responded, dryly.