The death last month of the Rev. Claude McBride recalled for me the eventful summer of 1954, when Claude and I were on the news staff of the Columbus Ledger. Claude went on, of course, to have a long and distinguished career as a minister and as chaplain of the University of Georgia football team. The story Claude and I were covering that year has lived on in legend and the annals of law enforcement.
I am always surprised that the "Phenix City Story" is not better remembered today, because its drama and impact rivaled the "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and other infamous crime stories.
Phenix City, Ala., just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, had been a wild and rowdy river town from its early days in the 1890s. Gambling, prostitution and other forms of iniquity flourished there, mostly with the knowledge and consent of the local government and law enforcement officials. During World War II, the city's reputation was so bad that Gen. George S. Patton, the commander at nearby Fort Benning, declared Phenix City off limits to soldiers.
In the early 1950s, a group of Phenix City residents known as the Russell County Betterment Association was formed to support political candidates against officials sympathetic to the criminal elements. In February 1952, a bomb destroyed the home of the Betterment Association's president. Fortunately, no one was injured.
Then, fights broke out at polling places during the May primary with several RBA members beaten and bloodied. The Columbus newspaper carried a dramatic photo of the fight on its front page, a forerunner of the coverage which would earn the Pulitzer Prize for community service in 1955, the only such Pulitzer ever awarded to a Georgia newspaper.
The incidents prompted Phenix City attorney Albert S. Patterson to declare his candidacy for state attorney general in 1954, on a pledge to "clean up" his hometown and run other criminal elements out of Alabama. In a close count, Patterson won the primary on the same day legendary Big Jim Folsom was elected to his second term as governor.
A few weeks after the election, Patterson worked late one night at his office, on one of Phenix City's busiest streets. He descended the stairs and as he started for his car, two figures emerged from the shadows and gunned him down. They fled on foot as he lay dying in view of the several people walking along the street that night.
Patterson's assassination set in motion a series of events unprecedented in the nation's history. Alabama Gov. Gordon Persons declared martial law in Phenix City and dispatched National Guard troops to take over all offices of the government, including district attorney, sheriff and police chief. Then, judges and a blue-ribbon grand jury comprising residents of other counties were sent into Phenix City to hold trials and sentence the men (and a few women) rounded up and arrested by the National Guard.
The National Guard stayed in Phenix City for nearly a year to oversee elections for new officials and help in the investigation of Patterson's murder. Gov. Persons' actions had general support, but some of them had no legal precedent.
Familiar clubs and gambling houses such as Ma Beachie's, Chad's Rose Room, the Rainbow Room and the 241 Club were closed down, and their slot machines destroyed. None of them ever reopened.
It was a historic chapter in law enforcement, not just in Alabama but in the nation. Several books have been written about the Phenix City "cleanup" and a movie began shooting in Phenix City not long after the assassination. Titled "The Phenix City Story," it premiered in Phenix City the following year.
Although the movie takes liberties with the facts, its impact proved far-reaching. Albert Patterson's son replaced him as attorney general and went on to be elected governor in 1958, partly due to his role in the movie. He defeated a circuit judge from nearby Barbour County named George C. Wallace. It was the only election Wallace ever lost in Alabama.
The former Russell County district attorney, deputy sheriff and the former state attorney general were all charged with Patterson's murder. The deputy sheriff was convicted, but the district attorney was acquitted -- even though witnesses placed both of them at the murder scene. The deputy sheriff was sentenced to life in prison but died seven years later.
The district attorney regained his law license and died a few years ago. The state attorney general was in a mental institution and never tried.
John Patterson served one term as governor and was a federal judge for many years.
George Wallace was elected governor four times, and his wife, Lurleen, was elected once.
Gordon Persons left politics.
In 1956, Phenix City was named an All-American City by Look Magazine.
Millard Grimes, now an Athens resident, is a longtime Georgia newspaperman and author of "The Last Linotype: The Story of Georgia and Its Newspapers Since World War II." This article was first published in the Athens Banner-Herald.