Raised on the Rough Side
His father ran Bentley's Grocery which, like most grocery stores
in Russell County, sold lottery tickets. Male children in Phenix
City were usually aware of what was going on in the honky-tonks
and Hugh was no exception.
As an adult Hugh opened Bentley's Sporting Goods across the bridge
in Columbus. He and his wife Bernice were active in the community
and in their church. Bentley attended a sporting goods convention
in Chicago in the 1940's where he was publicly humiliated about
the reputation of Phenix City. Hugh returned home and began to
investigate the allegation that Phenix City had an organized crime
syndicate that was worse than Chicago's.
He organized the Christian Layman's Association in 1945, and held
all night prayer vigils at different churches throughout Phenix
City. By 1947 the organization had become divided and dissolved.
In 1948 Bentley's organization, the Good Government League, was
ineffective at halting vote fraud that the "machine"
used to elect officials. Hugh Bentley's persistence at resisting
the status quo of crime and vice in his home town led him to Albert
Patterson in 1951. At Patterson's suggestion Hugh Bentley and
ten other directors formed the Russell Betterment Association
with Bentley as president.
Living His Convictions
On October 25, 1951, Hugh Bentley and 10 others signed papers
of incorporation for the RBA. As a corporation, the RBA was able
to get more press coverage of Phenix City's vice. Albert Patterson
volunteered his services free of charge, though did not become
a member himself. Hugh Bentley later received death threats. Gambling
kingpin Hoyt Shepherd offered Hugh a political office in exchange
for easing up on Phenix City's gamblers. Hugh declined the offer,
stating that he only wanted a clean town with clean elections.
Two and a half months later Bentley returned home one night to
find his house blown up and his family alive beneath the rubble.
Governor Gordon Persons promised to find the perpetrators. The
investigation, led by Sheriff Ralph Mathews, Police Chief Pal
Daniels and county solicitor Arch Ferrell, turned up no suspects.
Bentley donated the insurance money to the RBA and began an effort
to impeach Ralph Mathews.
On May 6, 1952 the RBA sent watchers to cover the polls. Upon
viewing rampant and open vote fraud, Bentley and his son Hughbo,
along with RBA member Hugh Britton, demanded that County Judge
Harry Randall arrest the offenders. Judge Randall refused. Bentley
and gambler Head Revel exchanged words. As the three men returned
to watch the polls, they were attacked and beaten in broad daylight.
Law enforcement watched the brawl, but did nothing to stop the
Bentley helped Patterson run for attorney general, often speaking
on his behalf and contributing financially to his campaign. When
Patterson was murdered after winning the Democratic nomination,
the National Guard marched into Phenix City and Hugh Bentley played
a smaller role as he watched the process of the clean-up in action.
The RBA was ever present during the clean-up, monitoring to ensure
that the juries were fair.