On this day in Alabama history: Phenix City reformer Hugh Bentley died

On this day in Alabama history: Phenix City reformer Hugh Bentley died
Phenix City is located on Chattahoochee River on the Alabama-Georgia border, the county seat of Russell County. The Phenix City sign includes a symbol of the phoenix, a mythological creature symbolizing resurrection that might be the origin of the city's name. (From Encyclopedia of Alabama, photograph by Jimmy Emerson)

April 13, 1984

Hugh Bentley was a key figure in the movement to end vice and corruption in Phenix City in the early 1950s and became the subject of threats and a bombing. He also owned several sporting goods stores and created a plastic helmet liner used by American soldiers in World War II. Bentley was born on Aug. 15, 1909, in Phenix City, the youngest of seven sons of Calvin and Minnie Bentley. At the time, Phenix City and its southern neighbor, Girard (which Phenix City later annexed) were known as lawless towns. Then, the 1920s and 1930s brought Prohibition, the Great Depression, and organized crime, and with them came drugs, illegal liquor sales, gambling, political corruption and prostitution. While attending a conference in Chicago in 1949, Bentley was embarrassed to learn the nationwide reputation of Phenix City as “Sin City.” He resolved to break the hold of crime on his hometown. That year, Bentley founded the Christian Laymen’s Association to unite the citizens and churches of Phenix City in the fight against organized crime. Bentley and other residents also formed the Good Government League, the Citizen’s Committee and the Ministerial Alliance. After little success through these organizations and upon the advice of lawyer and state Sen. Albert Patterson, Bentley created the Russell Betterment Association (RBA) in 1950 to explore and develop ways to work against political corruption gambling, and voter fraud. The RBA monitored polls for voter fraud, campaigned for accountability on the police force and in the court, and worked to drive prostitution and gambling from Phenix City. On Jan. 9, 1952, as Bentley was returning home from out-of-town business, his house was dynamited. Miraculously, his family emerged alive, but the house was reduced to rubble. In 1954, Bentley and the RBA convinced Patterson to run for Alabama attorney general and clean up Phenix City. The “Phenix City Machine” tried unsuccessfully to defeat Patterson by changing votes on tally sheets, but Patterson eventually was declared the Democratic nominee. On June 18, 1954, however, Patterson was shot and killed as he left his law office. His death prompted Gov. Gordon Persons to declare martial law in Phenix City, and Gen. Walter Hanna and the National Guard were sent in to enforce Persons’s orders. Bentley was instrumental in Phenix City becoming a growing, thriving community and a safe place for families. He died on April 13, 1984, in Phenix City and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.

Read more at Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Businessman and Phenix City native Hugh Bentley (1909-1984) was a leading figure in efforts to clean up the city during the mid-twentieth century, teaming with Albert Patterson to drive out corrupt and criminal elements. (From Encyclopedia of Alabama, courtesy of Pearl Whatley Mitchell)














For more on Alabama’s Bicentennial, visit Alabama 200.

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