Present discussions regarding gambling here in Alabama are reminiscent of a time in the state’s past when Phenix City allowed many forms of gambling and state government officials looked the other way. Phenix City’s past was the subject of my documentary, “Up from the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City.” I did the documentary, which was nominated for an Emmy Award, ten years ago. There has been renewed interest in Phenix City’s story recently because the state of Alabama is currently involved in a vigorous debate regarding bingo. Higher forms of gambling are forbidden here by state law, but bingo in various forms has been allowed for several years. Bingo began in Alabama as a way for non-profit organizations to raise money, but has escalated into big business in some locations. The governor has created a special task force which has taken action to end bingo operations, but the attorney general has ruled that the bingo operations are within the law. It appears that many people in the state would like to have an opportunity to vote on the issue.
Phenix City is located across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia. It grew primarily as a bedroom community for the larger city of Columbus. The people of Phenix City worked in Columbus but were frequently the first workers to be cut when jobs had to be thinned. There just weren’t enough jobs for the people of Phenix City. Further, the town did not have a tax base large enough to support basic services. Gambling operations were proposed as a solution and they put it to a vote.
"They voted to authorize gambling to come in, illegally, of course, and they collected revenue in the form of licenses of illegal gambling operations," explains former Alabama governor John Patterson. "This was a conscious decision that the city fathers made."
The gambling operations provided jobs for the people of Phenix City and money for the city’s coffers. Since Columbus is home to Fort Benning, a large military operation, the customer base for Phenix City’s gambling was largely military men.
It started with a lottery, called "the Bug." On one occasion the building housing the lottery operation became so full of excited people that it literally collapsed. The lottery was just the beginning and Phenix City ultimately became the home of a powerful crime syndicate. The streets were lined with casinos. Alabama state law prohibited such operations, but state officials took no action either because they were paid off or because they were afraid of retaliation.
A few brave citizens in Phenix City banded together and managed to get local candidates to run on a platform opposing gambling. The gentlemen in the photo above were leaders in that movement. They were beaten outside the polling place on election day in 1952. As more people rallied to fight the crime, there were more beatings. There were bombings. And there was a murder. The murder of Phenix City attorney Albert Patterson following his election to the position of state attorney general brought national attention to the crime in Phenix City. Alabama’s governor took action, declaring marshall law. The National Guard took over the town and cleaned everything up in 1954. In 1955, Phenix City was awarded LOOK magazine’s All-America City award, given to cities that had been turned around by citizen involvement. Today it is a beautiful, thriving city.
For more about my documentary, visit Up from the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City
DVDs of “Up from the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City” may be purchased for $21.00 each by calling 1-800-463-8825.