December 7, 1941 is a day that President Franklin Roosevelt declared as a “date that will live in infamy.” Most residents of Huntsville will know this is the date that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and World War II began.
There were some living in Huntsville in 1971 who also said that Dec. 7 that year was also an infamous day. Why? That is the date that the City of Huntsville forever changed when the first of two “local option” elections was held that turned the city of Huntsville from being “dry” to “wet.” Before this date, Huntsville, according to city records, had been bone-dry (no alcohol) since 1913, even before prohibition was made the law of the land on January 17, 1920.
The genesis of the wet/dry elections began when two SHSU business majors, Robert McCracken and Edward L. Smith, Jr., who were both returning Vietnam veterans, had coffee in the Lowman Student Center cafeteria early one Monday morning in March 1971. A SHSU Veterans Club party was held over the weekend and the organizers had to make a 40-mile roundtrip to Trinity County to purchase the alcoholic beverages for the gathering.
Over the years, many Sam Houston State students, and others from Huntsville, had been injured and even killed making that drive and the two veterans wondered what it would take to legally sell alcoholic beverages in Huntsville. A trip to the SHSU law library gave them the information needed to start the process. It would require signatures from more than 700 registered voters and on very specific local option petition forms. A daunting task, but a chain of events occurred in 1971 that made the elections possible.
The first was the adoption of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on July 1, 1971, which gave 18-year-olds across the nation the right to vote. The second came shortly thereafter when the college students were given the right in Texas to register and vote where they were going to school. A third major hurdle was met with a then little-known law in Texas that allows anyone of “good moral character” to become a deputy voter registrar.
McCracken and Smith, with a lot of undercover help from County Judge Amos Gates, were made voter registrars and they immediately began the process on campus of registering students to vote. Over a weekend when classes started back in the fall, the two students set up a large booth in the small park adjacent to the student center with voter registration cards at one end and local option election petitions at the other. All done with a wink and a nod from SHSU President Elliott Bowers, and some key members from the university administration and faculty.
To help with expenses, Smith and McCracken created a non-profit group called Citizens for a Progressive Huntsville and solicited donations from “friendly” merchants, SHSU faculty, local politicians who secretly supported the cause and SHSU students. They also mobilized an army of student volunteers, the Greek fraternities and sororities, agriculture students and even the Student Mobilization Committee, the campus anti-war hippies. These volunteers spread out across neighborhoods close to the campus to get voters’ signatures on petitions and within their organizations. The goal was to get as many valid petition signatures as possible to thwart any challenges from the Walker Country Clerk’s office when signatures were being verified.
The careful planning worked. The County Clerk’s office verified over 860 signatures and in late November 1971 and the petitions were presented to the Walker County Commissioners Court.
With unanimous approval, Court set the date for the special election on Tuesday, December 7, 1971. Next came an intense political campaign to inform voters how to vote in a local option election, where to vote and to ensure that voters who longed for this change in Huntsville were energized and mobilized. This planning, and help from the generous donations, paid off on election day when the largest election held to date in Huntsville saw 3,115 voters cast ballots.
When the results were announced, 1,937 had voted for the “off-premise sale of alcohol” option and 1,178 voted against, so the Wets defeated the Drys by a 759 vote margin, with the bulk of those votes coming from two precincts with heavy SHSU student populations. Once the vote was canvassed, local merchants made plans to open package stores and get licenses to sell beer and wine in grocery and convenience stores.
But the fight apparently wasn’t over.
The Huntsville City Council in early December proposed an ordinance that would restrict where retail stores selling alcohol could be located. The “boundaries” the council proposed completely cut off Huntsville’s African-American population who lived primarily on the northside. The uproar over this in the community was predictable. Smith and McCracken immediately contacted local NAACP director Wendall Baker to mobilize his community, they contacted ACLU attorney Lynn Hughes (who is now a Houston Federal judge) and the Houston TV stations. The next council meeting was raucous as a packed room of citizens made their voices heard in front of glaring television camera lights and the city relented. The final ordinance that was passed only limited alcohol sales from areas within a certain distance of schools and churches.
The master plan that Smith and McCracken envisioned was to eventually make Huntsville, and just the city, totally wet, meaning alcohol could also be served “on-premise” in restaurants and possibly nightclubs. They sensed that the community might not support this much change in one election so they worked on the off-premise election first.
This plan proved to be the right one.
They started the next petition signature gathering in the spring of 1972 when both were now post-graduate students. This process proved to be more difficult because there was a fair amount of opposition to on-premise alcohol consumption among the local community and even some students. They discovered an answer in the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) rules for “Mixed Drink Permits.” The election could be just for that permit which meant there could not be so-called beer joints and honky-tonks that typically just serve beer and possibly wine. The TABC rules required a mixed drink permit holder to sell a substantial amount of his or her gross sales as food, they have to purchase their beer, wine and spirits from a local off-premise retailer at retail prices, they have to have a training program for their servers and the fee for this license is far more expensive per year than a beer or wine only permit.
There is also a 6.7 percent mixed drink beverage gross receipt tax that is paid in addition to a local community’s sales tax. The election for mixed drink permits only has kept beer joints and other undesirable places like them out of the city. For Smith and McCracken, this was just the right solution to counter the objections to this election and it worked.
Enough valid signatures for on-premise, mixed drink permits were gathered and presented to Commissioners Court on October 9, 1972 and a resolution to hold the election was unanimously approved. The election was set for Tuesday, October 31, 1972. SHSU students and many in the community who were for the proposition were once again mobilized, advertising space in the Huntsville Item was purchased and spots were aired on the Huntsville radio station. The ad campaign explained to Huntsville voters the benefit of the mixed drink permits and revenues that would flow into the city from additional sales and property tax as well as providing many employment opportunities for both students and local residents.
The vote was expected to be closer than the first one and this proved to be the case. A total of 2,144 votes were cast with 1,214 for the proposition with 930 opposed; a 284 vote margin in favor.
Huntsville would never be the same following these two historic events. The two student organizers received nothing for their efforts nor did they want or ask for any rewards. They proved that an energized electorate and tireless organization can make positive changes in a community like Huntsville.
Sadly, Robert McCracken passed away in 2003 from ALS. Smith, whose legal last name is now McIntosh, is a senior executive in the oil and gas industry in Houston and owns property just east of Huntsville in Oakhurst. He marveled during a recent visit how much Huntsville has grown and is a great place to live and work today.
He attributed this positive growth to the two local option elections which set the wheels in motion. It’s doubtful, McIntosh said, that anyone enjoying a nice meal with a glass of wine or a cocktail at any of Huntsville’s restaurants know, or remember, when the city was dry and the Herculean efforts it took to change that.
It should be noted that in 2013, a local option election for mixed drink permits was held In Justice Precinct 2, which is on the west side of I-45 and includes Elkins Lake, and it carried by more than 70 percent of the vote. The organizers of that election used the same mixed-drink game plan to win over voters that two determined SHSU college students used 50 years in the past.