Era of Turmoil

The era between the end of World War II and the early 1970s was a turbulent one, as the area became involved in national debates over the Civil Rights movement and a scandal in Phenix City that brought the area unprecedented national attention.

Thomas Brewer was widely regarded as the leader of the civil rights struggle in Columbus. A physician, Brewer helped found the local chapter of the NAACP, assisted in planning the successful local challenge of Georgia’s all-white primary system, coordinated voter registration drives, and campaigned for hiring black police officers. He was shot and killed in downtown Columbus under suspicious circumstances in 1956. Largely as a result of his influence and tragic death, the local movement for racial equality was less directly confrontational than in other cities.

The town of Phenix City, Alabama, located directly opposite the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, briefly became the focus of unwanted national attention during the 1950s. Home to a thriving criminal syndicate, the city was widely recognized as a place where vice flourished. The epicenter of Phenix City’s underworld was the riverfront, where rackets brought in millions of dollars annually through gambling, prostitution, lotteries, and illegal liquor.

Running as a “Man Against Crime,” Albert Patterson won the race for Attorney General over the Phenix City syndicate’s candidate of choice. On a Friday night in 1954, Patterson was shot and killed as he was leaving his downtown office, just a few feet away from busy restaurants and theaters. Patterson’s death set in motion a chain of events that marked a dramatic turning point in the community’s history. Limited martial law was declared in the town by Governor Gordon Persons, and in the series of raids and arrests that followed, the vice industry in Phenix City was virtually wiped out.

  • The Phenix City Story poster
    Museum purchase made possible by the Evelyn S. and H. Wayne Patterson Fund 2006.71
    Hollywood filmmakers came to Phenix City to film a highly fictionalized version of the Patterson assassination that was seen around the world. Click here for more information

  • Dr. Thomas H. Brewer
    ink on paper
    Raymond Dillard
    Gift of Black Entrepreneurs of Columbus and the Tribute Committee 1989.20
    An activist and a physician, Dr. Thomas Brewer was the most prominent leader of the early Civil Rights movement in Columbus. Click here for more information

  • Phenix City: The Wickedest City in America 1955
    Museum purchase made possible by the Evelyn S. and H. Wayne Patterson Fund 2009.22

    Birmingham reporters Edwin Strickland and Gene Wortsman wrote this “true crime” account of martial law and clean-up in Phenix City. Click here for more information

  • Poker chip
    Gift of James E. and Kelli Hall 2005.53.2
    This gambling chip was used at the Silver Dollar Club, one of Phenix City’s most notorious casinos. Click here for more information

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