Richard Hyatt

Studying virtue of vice

Long ago, as a new guy in an old building, I stayed around until the morning newspaper rolled off the press and consumed the clippings in scrapbooks about the cleanup of Phenix City.

They were more compelling than a cheap crime novel or a cops and robbers movie produced in Hollywood, and they educated me about my newspaper and my new hometown.

As a boy of 12, I had sneaked into a downtown Atlanta theater to see “The Phenix City Story” — a movie that included Meg Myles’ sultry rendition of “The Phenix City Blues.”

Remembering that film, I was curious about a collection that was a foundation of the presentation that led to the Columbus Ledger’s Pulitzer Prize for journalism in 1955. The paper was honored for its coverage of the assassination of state Attorney General-Elect Albert Patterson in an alley not far from the 14th Street bridge.

Later on, I became friends with Hugh Bentley and Howard Pennington of the crusading citizens group that helped run corruption out of town. I also went to Montgomery and interviewed star reporter Ray Jenkins, who kept his Pulitzer certificate in a stack of stuff on top of a bookcase in his office.

I wasn’t the only person fascinated by a campaign that toppled a criminal element that had gripped the community since the Civil War. Several books have been written on it. Graduate students have studied that era, and it was the setting for a colorful novel.

This week, a friend called and said a professor from the College of Charleston was on C-SPAN talking about another book. Tammy Ingram’s focus is letters local people wrote to Sen. Estes Keufauver, D-Tenn. — leader of a federal investigation of organized crime in 1951.

The title of her book is “The Wickedest City in America,” playing off a remark made in 1940 by Secretary of War Henry Stimson. In her televised comments, Ingram talks about slot machines that were rigged and a grocery store where you couldn’t buy a loaf of bread.

I’ll read her book, hoping it plows new ground on an old story and introduces readers to the colorful people on both sides of the story.

If not, I’ll get a case of the “Phenix City Blues.”

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at hyatt31906@knology.net.

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