Thursday, August 8, 2019

Steve Flowers: Inside the Statehouse - The Phenix City story

  There are very few Alabamians left who remember the 1950s story of Phenix City, Alabama. After World War II, a good many of the military soldiers, enlisted men, stayed on for a while.  A host of them was stationed at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. As many of you know, Columbus, Georgia and Phenix City, Alabama are essentially the same city. They are only separated by a bridge and the Chattahoochee River.

  Phenix City figured that these soldiers needed some entertainment, so our border city became the poor man’s Las Vegas and Guadalajara, Mexico rolled into one. Phenix City became known as the most sinful place in America. It was openly run by a tough redneck mafia that made the New York mafia look like choir boys.

  At least the New York Mafia tried to subvert their illegal activities, though. Phenix City was wide open. Countless public officials and law enforcement officers in town were on the mafia’s payroll. The entire town, including Main Street, had casinos and brothels. There were so many illegal slot machines in operation that they outnumbered those in Las Vegas. These slot machines and prostitutes lured the soldiers across the bridge to be preyed upon.

  The entire state was embarrassed by the Phenix City story. One of the few local, honest attorneys in Russell-Tallapoosa Counties, Albert Patterson, ran for Attorney General of Alabama on a platform to clean up Phenix City. Patterson won the statewide race due to his stance. Three days later, the Phenix City mafia gunned him down, openly assassinating the newly-elected Attorney General of Alabama.

  This bold, brazen murder by the Phenix City crowd was the straw that broke the camel’s back.  The governor and president declared martial law, and they put a clampdown on the whole town. They put all of the public officials in the city jail. A very few escaped to Texas, and others were found floating in the Chattahoochee River. Federal officials dredged the river and found over 200 skeletons of victims who had tried to cross the Phenix City mafia. The sheriff and a deputy sheriff named Albert Fuller were convicted of the murder of Albert Patterson.

  His son, John Patterson, was appointed to fill the term of his father as attorney general. John Patterson served as Alabama’s attorney general from 1954-1958. Patterson was elected governor of Alabama in 1958, in no small part to the sympathy Alabamians had over his father’s assassination.

  The man John Patterson beat in that 1958 race for governor was none other than George C. Wallace. Both Wallace and Patterson were making their first race for governor, but about the time that race started, a movie came out titled “The Phenix City Story.” It told the story of Albert Patterson’s murder at the hands of the corrupt thug mafia. The sympathy for Patterson was too much for Wallace to overcome. Patterson handed Wallace his only gubernatorial defeat.

  The gambling issue lay dormant in the state for decades, primarily due to churches' influence. However, there were local controversies over alcohol sales.

  Around the late 1990s, Macon and Greene County voters passed upfront constitutional amendments that allowed for a new invention called electronic bingo. Gov. Bob Riley, at the behest of the Choctaw casinos out of Mississippi, closed down the lucrative, prosperous Victoryland Casino in Macon County. The Choctaw Indian gambling group was Riley’s largest campaign contributor. He used his gubernatorial power to do their bidding.

  The legendary outlaws, Abramoff and Scanlan, went to Washington about this time and bought the rights for Native American reservations to have legal gambling on their native lands. Washington hearings revealed that the satchels full of money that Scanlan and Abramoff brought to Washington to pass this privileged monopoly were filled by Las Vegas casinos.

  Abramoff and Scanlan went to jail, but the Native American casinos have their monopoly on bingo betting. The Alabama Poarch Creeks have flourished for the last 15 years with a monopoly on electronic bingo. They have piled up a lot of cash and made large political contributions to Alabama legislators.

  Make no doubt about it, the lottery bill that failed recently in the legislature was the Poarch Creek Casino group’s bill. It was an archaic paper ballot lottery that would have prohibited any private, tax-paying Alabama operations from competing with the Poarch Creek monopoly on electronic bingo.

  About the author: Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at He can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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