Hugh Bentley (1909-1984) was a key figure in the movement to end vice and corruption in Phenix City, Russell County, in the early 1950s and became the subject of threats and a bombing. He also was the owner of several sporting goods stores and created a plastic helmet liner used by American soldiers in World War II.
Hugh A. Bentley was born on August 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.
Calvin Bentley ran a grocery store frequented by gamblers and racketeers, prompting Minnie to leave with the children. To help support the family, Hugh, youngest of seven sons, often pulled a wagon across the 14th Street Bridge to Columbus, Georgia, to sell his mother's pre-made meals to mill workers. Hugh graduated from Central High in Phenix City, Massey Business College in Columbus, Georgia, and took courses at Northwestern University in Chicago in accounting and business. In 1933, Bentley married Bernice Roche of Warsaw, Florida, with whom he would have three children. Also that year, he opened Bentley Sporting Goods store on Broadway in Columbus and eventually opened two more stores in the area.
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 state senator and lawyer 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. The RBA first met secretly for fear of their lives and many men resisted joining for fear of their families' safety.
On January 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. Despite the offer of a reward, a grand jury investigation, and an investigation by Army ordnance experts from Fort Benning, a culprit was never identified. On Election Day, May 6, 1952, Hugh Bentley, his son Hughbo, and fellow activist Hugh Britton were beaten while monitoring voting polls with the RBA. As often occurred in these years, Bentley and other RBA members were threatened repeatedly, but the RBA continued to win small victories against the "Phenix City Machine." The RBA continued to monitor voting polls, campaign for honest candidates, and promote safety on the streets of Phenix City, but the group was unsuccessful obtaining assistance on the state level.
In 1954, Bentley and the RBA convinced Albert Patterson to run for Alabama State 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.
Having helped pave the way for state intervention, Bentley and the RBA stepped aside as martial law was enforced for more than six months. More than 700 people were indicted by a special Russell County Grand Jury, and by late 1955, the town was rid of all organized crime and vice. Bentley and other Phenix City residents later traveled the state with John Patterson, son of Albert Patterson, campaigning for him in his successful bid for attorney general and again for governor in recognition of his success in his father's stead.
Phenix City was named an "All American City" in 1955 by Look Magazine, and Bentley was considered one of the reasons. In 1958, he was honored with an appearance on the television show This is Your Life, where his story was told and he was hailed as a hero. For the remainder of Bentley's life, he worked to improve his community, serving as a deacon and Sunday school teacher, supporting civic organizations and the Boy Scouts, and campaigning for laws and just courts.
Bentley was instrumental in Phenix City becoming a growing, thriving community and a safe place for families. In 1954, not
long before the clean-up, he was asked by a reporter why he continued to live in Phenix City despite danger and threats. Bentley
described Phenix City as a "dirty, filthy coat" that he inherited from his father and didn't want to pass along to his children.
He died on April 13, 1984, in Phenix City and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.
Atkins, Ace. Wicked City. New York: Putnam & Sons, 2008.
Barnes, Margaret Anne. Phenix City–Triumph and Tragedy. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1999.
Sellers, James Benson. The Prohibition Movement in Alabama, 1702 to 1943. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1943.
Strickland, Edwin and Gene Wortsman. Phenix City: The Wickedest City in America. Birmingham, Ala.: Vulcan Press, 1955.
Pearl Watley Mitchell
Russell County Historical Commission
Published August 13, 2009
Last updated April 26, 2010