There are very few Alabamians left who remember the 1950s story of Phenix City, Alabama.
After World War II, many enlisted soldiers stayed on for a while and a host of them were stationed at Ft. Benning in Columbus, Georgia. As many of you know, Columbus and Phenix City are essentially the same city, separated only by a bridge and the Chattahoochee River.
Phenix City figured these soldiers needed some entertainment and 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, openly run by a tough redneck mafia that made the New York Mafia look like choirboys.
At least the New York Mafia tried to subvert their illegal activities. Phenix City was wide-open. Every public official and law enforcement officer in town was on the mafia’s payroll. The entire town, including Main Street, had casinos and brothels. The number of illegal slot machines in operation 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 with a platform to clean up Phenix City and he won 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 clamp down 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 more than 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 Patterson’s murder.
His son, John Patterson, was appointed to fill the term of his father as attorney general and he served from 1954-1958. Patterson was elected governor in 1958 in no small part to the sympathy Alabamians had over his father’s assassination.
The man 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 entitled “The Phenix City Story.” It told the story of Albert Patterson’s murder at the hands of the mafia and the sympathy for Patterson was too much for Wallace to overcome and Patterson handed Wallace his only gubernatorial defeat.
The gambling issue lay dormant in the state for decades, primarily due to church influence. However, there were local controversies over alcohol sales. Around the late 1990s, voters in Macon and Greene counties passed up-front constitutional amendments that allowed a new invention called electronic bingo. Gov. Bob Riley, at the behest of the Choctaw Indian casinos out of Mississippi, closed down the lucrative, prosperous Victoryland Casino in Macon County. The Choctaw Indian gambling syndicate was Riley’s largest campaign contributor and he used his gubernatorial power to do their bidding.
The legendary outlaws, Abramoff and Scanlon, went to Washington about this time and bought the rights for Indian reservations to have legal gambling on their native lands. Washington hearings revealed the satchels full of money Scanlon and Abramoff brought to Washington to pass this privileged monopoly was filled by Las Vegas casinos.
Abramoff and Scanlon went to jail but the Indian casinos have their monopoly on bingo betting. The Alabama Poarch Creek Indians 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 syndicate’s bill. It was an archaic paper ballot lottery that would have prohibited any private taxpaying Alabama operations from competing with the Poarch Creek monopoly on electronic bingo.
Steve Flowers served 16 years in the legislature and can be reached at www.steveflowers.us.