An organized temperance movement began in Georgia in the late 1820s and, after early difficulties, flourished through the 1930s. As in other parts of the United States, Georgia’s temperance reformers typically were evangelical Protestants who regarded alcoholic beverages as harmful (even sinful) for the individual drinker and for society at large. Supposedly, drink destroyed families and reputations and brought about poverty, disorder, and crime. As elsewhere, Georgia’s temperance reformers started by urging individuals to decide voluntarily not to drink and later campaigned to change the laws to restrict and abolish the sale of alcoholic beverages. Georgia had statewide prohibition from 1908 until 1935, a period that began before and extended beyond national prohibition (1920-33).
From Moderation to Politics
The Georgia State Temperance Society, organized in 1828, at first met concurrently with the Baptist state convention. The state society sent delegates to the American Temperance Society but was never formally affiliated with it. Originally this first statewide society committed its members to moderation in the consumption of distilled liquors. When it attempted in 1836 to shift to a teetotal pledge, the society broke up and disappeared. One of the few affiliated local societies to survive was in Augusta, for many years a temperance stronghold.
In the 1840s and 1850s the Georgia temperance movement shared in national enthusiasms: Washingtonianism, which employed the testimonials of reformed drunkards to encourage men to pledge themselves to give up drink; and fraternal societies, such as the Sons of Temperance, which combined quasi-Masonic ritual and mutual insurance with teetotalism.
Prewar temperance reformers explored the political road to temperance. In the late 1830s a petition movement called for an end to retail liquor licenses. In 1855, influenced by the example of statutory prohibition in the state of Maine, a temperance convention meeting in Atlanta nominated a Methodist minister, B. H. Overby, as a candidate for governor on a platform of statewide prohibition.
Before the Civil War (1861-65), some white Georgians may have associated temperance with northern abolitionists and consequently rejected it. Lagging economic development also handicapped the temperance cause, given that this modernizing ideology had little appeal in predominantly rural Georgia. Finally, Georgians disliked laws that restricted their personal liberty.
Temperance and Race
After the war the temperance movement was both hurt and helped by racism. White Georgians resisted any mixing of the races in temperance organizations but were eager to make it illegal for emancipated African Americans to drink alcoholic beverages. Prohibition of alcoholic drink became intertwined with Black disenfranchisement and subordination.
In 1867 James G. Thrower, a British immigrant, introduced the Order of Good Templars to Georgia, assembling the first state lodge in Atlanta in 1869. Unlike most fraternal societies, the Good Templars admitted both men and women and let local affiliates decide about African Americans. Members who opposed African American membership at any location quit in the early 1870s to form the exclusively white United Friends of Temperance. Around the same time, white Good Templars in Kentucky organized a Jim Crow temperance society called the True Reformers for Blacks; the movement reached Georgia about 1874. When in 1876 the international Good Templar order broke up over the question of the rights of Blacks, white Good Templars in Georgia appeased northerners by organizing a “dual” grand lodge for Black teetotalers, who could enjoy the Good Templar name and ritual but not meet at lodges with whites. At the same time the predominantly British party in the divided Good Templar order employed northern-born schoolteachers to organize a nominally integrated grand lodge that de facto was Black. By the late 1880s few Good Templars of either race survived in Georgia.
New Organizations and New Laws
By this time other organizations dominated the temperance movement. In 1880 the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) established its first society in Georgia, and in 1883 a statewide WCTU was organized. In 1884 an umbrella organization, called the Georgia Temperance Association, was created. It was superseded in 1905 when the Anti-Saloon League of America was organized in the state.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries temperance reformers attempted to persuade the state government to enact restrictive liquor legislation and the voters to implement local option powers. An 1885 statute granted voters the right to impose prohibition in the county where they lived. By 1907 most counties had voted themselves dry. That same year the state legislature enacted mandatory statewide prohibition, one of the moral reforms demanded by Progressives throughout the South. The Atlanta race riot of 1906 probably encouraged the enactment of prohibition; whites feared the consequences of African Americans’ drinking, and furthermore, white mobs originated in bars and saloons.
The new law went into effect in 1908. For a time the legislature offered the “wets” some loopholes—near-beer saloons serving low-alcohol drinks were permitted, as were alcoholic beverages in locker-clubs—but these were closed in 1915. Georgia ratified the Eighteenth Amendment for national prohibition three years later. It did not vote for repeal of national prohibition, but after that occurred, Georgia repealed its own statewide prohibition in 1935.