The Driest of the Drys: William Upshaw

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.

Publicity photo in which Upshaw is keeping Washington D.C. “dry”.

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.

Retrieved from

3 thoughts on “The Driest of the Drys: William Upshaw

  1. Excellently written article once again, Mike! I’ve noticed, as part of a consistent theme with mainstream/academic sources, that the Second Klan and their prominent members are branded as “right-wing” due to their professed nativism, racially charged protectionism, and opposition to communism. It’s interesting to observe that far from being distinctly “right-wing,” much of their ranks, including Upshaw, were actually progressives of their time (and they often embraced the label) who pushed for reformist and economically left-wing policies. Contrary to the popular narrative of the Klan being uniformly “anti-labor,” it outspokenly supported practically any labor movement which solely benefited the native-born white working-class, as explained in “The Ku Klux Klan, Labor, and the White Working Class During The 1920s” by Thomas R. Pegram. The Klan’s purported opposition to socialism/communism was not so much a traditionalist right-wing reaction, rather a progressive movement competing with a socialist one in an appeal to the same nativist white working-class constituencies of the era. It’s easy for people nowadays to think of anti-communism as uniformly right-wing while forgetting that the most vicious red-baiters of the 1910s were Progressive Era activists.

    In Georgia, it seems that the Second KKK had sharp links to progressivism. Its resurgence, along with a horrific wave of racist terrorism that was incited, seems to be traced to demagogue Tom Watson, who was a lifelong avowed populist and outspoken opponent of big business. Another prominent Georgia Klansman, E. D. Rivers, led denunciations of chain stores in 1930 and later as governor instituted New Deal programs. While during the mid-1930s he didn’t engage in the sheer level of crude public racism exhibited by intraparty opponent Eugene Talmadge, his bigotry was nonetheless evident in coldly denying due process to two black men accused of alleged murder by an all-white jury.

    Nowadays, with political ideology designated more on the basis of cultural rather than economic issues, I’ve observed that the manner in which “left-wing” and “right-wing” are thrown around much easily get twisted by propaganda. By today’s standards, an old-school progressive would probably be deceptively branded “alt-right”/”far-right” since they typically opposed immigration and promoted scientific racism. And indeed, contemporary mainstream sources like Wikipedia seem to go about labeling the likes of Upshaw as “far-right” without any solid evidence, presumably using only the typical relativistic arguments.

  2. Thanks! It is quite true that the KKK were receptive to labor if it didn’t threaten their views of race. Although there were some in the South who didn’t like strong union protections, many who turned against later did so because of the prospect of racial integration and/or the significant communist presence within the CIO. Tom Watson’s earlier efforts at racial alliance via the Populist Party to me seemed opportunistic rather than based out of any genuine belief in racial equality. There seems to be this mythology surrounding him that he turned to the dark side and abandoned his idealism, but he simply changed tactics on race and maintained his populist left views.

    Also, I find it funny how when someone engages in the persecution or worse of left-wingers, it gets interpreted as automatically excluding them from being “left” themselves when there are so many international examples of left-wingers having other left-wingers offed. Stalin having fellow revolutionaries killed and Mao and the Cultural Revolution come foremost to mind.

    1. Huh, interesting. I notice consistently that for several past Southern leaders who were obviously progressive, such as Huey Long, Tom Watson, and Joseph T. Robinson, academic sources either mention nothing of their racial politics or try to portray them as racial moderates whose purported viewpoints are in line with their leftism. (for Robinson, he was crucial in blocking Costigan-Wagner Act (Vassar Miscellany News, Volume XIX, Number 45); the fact that I found an online archive mentioning it was a lucky coincidence, since most sources say absolutely zilch on this) (for Long, Glen Jeansonne’s publication titled “Huey Long and Racism,” which I read on JSTOR, debunks popular misconceptions)

      A while ago, I noticed that historian Richard J. Jensen argued that Watson “moved to the right politically” in the 1910s when including him in Wikipedia’s list of “Conservative Democrats.” (earlier this year, I tried fixing fallacious insertions at Wikipedia, and was banned for thoughtcrime) While C. Vann Woodward’s biography does briefly mention that Watson in later years moved away from socialism, the same chapter or so clearly says that Watson maintained a hatred for big business, and it was clearly from a consistent left-wing populist perspective. The notion that Watson ever became a creature of the right is an extreme exaggeration at best and apparently just plain false.

      And yeah, when it comes to labor unions, I’ve observed, as I read more and more especially on Southern politics over time during the 20th century, that racist elements increasingly conformed to anti-labor stances. I remember that your article on John E. Rankin seems to highlight it well. The only exceedingly odd exception I found to the trend was pro-KKK John Patterson’s campaign for governor of Alabama in 1958 (in the race where George Wallace wasn’t yet a hardcore demagogue) where he ran as a staunch supporter of labor.

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