Up From The Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City

PHENIX CITY–A public television documentary tells about the transformation of an Alabama city so wicked that Gen. George S. Patton threatened to roll his tanks across the river from Ft. Benning and destroy it.

Up From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City shows how the National Guard crushed a crime syndicate here in 1954, radically changing the course of this historic river town.

Located in Russell County, Phenix City is on the Chattahoochee River, opposite Columbus, Ga. Most of the area’s jobs have always been in Georgia at the mills and at Ft. Benning. Since Phenix City lacked the revenue that jobs bring in, the city fathers took an unusual step.

“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 governor John Patterson. “This was a conscious decision that the city fathers made.”

During WWII, many of the 100,000 soldiers who were stationed at Ft. Benning visited the clubs, gambling halls, and houses of prostitution in Phenix City. They often got into trouble with the owners of these establishments.

“They would completely take advantage of these soldiers,” says Margaret Anne Barnes, author of “The Tragedy and Triumph of Phenix City, Alabama.” “They would get them drunk or get them to gamble and take all of a man’s money, and if he objected about being ill-treated, then he was beat up and sometimes killed.”

But some of Phenix City’s citizens, led by local merchant Hugh Bentley, were ashamed of the city’s tarnished reputation and organized to bring an end to the crime. Bentley’s house was bombed, which made him only more determined to root out the criminals. When Bentley ally Albert Patterson ran for attorney general on an anti-crime platform, the syndicate tried fixing the election and buying votes. Patterson, a Phenix City attorney, won the election but was gunned down on the street before he could clean up the town.

“The end result of my father’s murder is that the people of Alabama had had enough,” says John Patterson, who followed in his father’s footsteps and became attorney general and governor. “They insisted something be done about it. So they sent the National Guard in, put it under martial law, and busted up the gambling joints, burned all the equipment, and prosecuted about six or seven hundred people, and, in the course of the next year, cleaned it up.”

Chief Deputy Sheriff Albert Fuller was convicted in the murder of Albert Patterson.

“This is the only place and the only time in the history of this nation that martial law has been declared other than for a riot or a natural catastrophe,” says Hilda Coulter, a Phenix City florist who worked with Bentley and Patterson.

“Up From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City” also shows how the city has worked to change its image since the campaign to clean up the town. Many people feel a pivotal event occurred in 1999 when the Phenix City All-Stars won the National Little League Championship, bringing favorable media attention to the town.

“I’ll have to say that in all fairness nothing solidified the feelings toward Phenix City like our Little League ball club did,” declares Bill Benton of the Russell County Historical Commission.

At about the same time, portraits of Hugh Bentley and Albert Patterson were placed in the Municipal Building, perhaps indicating that the city has come to terms with its past.

“I just feel it’s time to recognize those who took the initiative, who took the risk, and stood and acted on the good conscience of their heart for the betterment of this city,” explains Mayor Peggy Martin.

Up From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City was produced in 2000 by Max Shores at the University of Alabama Center for Public Television and Radio. It aired as part of The Alabama Experience documentary series.

DVDs may be purchased online: Buy a DVD of Up From The Ashes: The Rebirth of Phenix City

For more information visit:
Phenix City in the Encyclopedia of Alabama – Includes links to two clips from this documentary under the “Multimedia” heading.
The City of Phenix City
Phenix City in Wikipedia