Prohibition was for a time a popular cause and had grown more so with a combination of war fervor, a brilliant and tireless lobbyist in Wayne Wheeler, the rise of the income tax, and the increasing involvement of women in politics. Although Congressman Andrew Volstead (R-Minn.) is most associated with Prohibition law and Representative Charles Carlin (D-Va.) and Senator Morris Sheppard (D-Tex.) sponsored the Prohibition Amendment, the most intense champion of Prohibition was Democratic Representative William Upshaw (1866-1952) of Georgia.
Upshaw’s background has some cause to elicit sympathy…in 1895 at the age of 29 he fell from a wagon and injured his back, resulting in him having to use a wheelchair for years before recovering enough to walk with crutches. His story of recovery and his rise certainly are inspirational, but by 1918 when he ran for office, its possible that he was feeling better than he portrayed himself: despite walking with crutches in public appearances he was on one occasion caught running without the use of them. Upshaw was elected to the Atlanta district and had two central issues as its representative: support of Prohibition and the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s rebirth in 1915 had occurred atop Stone Mountain in Georgia, and the consumption of alcohol was among the numerous offenses for which the Klan exacted their own brand of vigilante justice. Upshaw himself was almost certainly a member of the KKK…internal Klan correspondence indicates so. He also supported the creation of the Department of Education as a means to stop the spread of Bolshevism. Upshaw was notably the only member of the Georgia Congressional delegation to support the 19th Amendment. It should, however, be no surprise given his state and his support for the Klan that he strongly opposed the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill on racial terms. He was a Southern progressive, supporting organized labor and veterans’ bonuses, opposing income tax cuts, and successfully working to defeat the anti-strike clause in the Railroad Labor Act. Upshaw saw himself as a supporter of the common man as opposed to the rich. Collier’s Magazine wrote of him in 1924, “In a materialistic age, given over to thought and discussion of gross profits, net income, public debts, and taxation, Upshaw is an incurable romantic. He is a sentimentalist, an idealist, a dreamer, an exhorter, an evangelist, but with all these impractical qualities and attributes, he has, and this is our final test, the ability to put his stuff across; to do things. Upshaw would be intolerable if he were not so absolutely sincere and genuine. He has had an amazing career, because he believes in all the copy book maxims. He is one of the old Sunday school storybooks come to life” (Prohibitionists).
Upshaw’s political fortunes rose with the Klan and they fell with them. 1926 was a bit of a year of requiem for the second Klan as the rape and murder scandal regarding Indiana Klan leader D.C. Stephenson in Indiana broke as well as numerous instances of Klan brutality and moral hypocrisy. Democrat Leslie Steele saw his chance to challenge Upshaw in the Democratic primary and did so, defeating him. The 1928 nomination of Catholic and wet Al Smith horrified him, and he was relieved when Hoover won.
In 1932, the dwindling Prohibition Party, which had only ever elected one person to Congress, nominated Upshaw for president, and he won nearly 82,000 votes and no states. He later moved to California and became ordained a minister. Upshaw would work with Klansman Roy Davis, a man with a lengthy criminal record, to establish an orphanage in San Bernardino County, but it fell apart after the latter was exposed for swindling donors. Davis would later become the National Grand Wizard of the Klan from 1959 to 1964.
In 1952, Upshaw announced that he was able to walk without the use of crutches after attending a revival meeting with Reverend William Branham (Harrell). Branham had been baptized by Davis and interestingly enough, also helped the rise of Jim Jones in the 1950s. However, Upshaw would admit that he had for a bit longer than this been able to walk for a distance without the use of crutches. While he didn’t say how early, it gives credence to the idea that his crutches served at least as much as a political prop as a need while he was in Congress. Nonetheless, he claimed that the revival meeting had helped his healing. Upshaw, by this time an octogenarian, died months later shortly after returning from an international speaking tour on November 21st.
Harrell, D. (1978). All things are possible: the healing and charismatic revivals in modern America. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
William Upshaw Bio. Prohibitionists.