Introduced by witnesses to the true story dramatized, a city of gambling and vice run by small-town gangsters is challenged by a father and son who are lawyers and by some conscientious citizens.
Clete Roberts reports the news about Phenix City and its criminal syndicate. He interviews Ed Strickland of the Birmingham News. Ed investigated the story of the murder of Albert Patterson in 1954. He says the political machine still exists in Phenix City. Next Roberts interviews Hugh Bentley, who investigated organized crime and teaches Sunday school. Hugh Britton says he knew of only one honest election there in 43 years. He said they used to hunt rats at the city dump. He says when you shine a light on a rat, it will run for cover, even those in city hall. Deputy sheriff Quinny Kelly is a witness in the murder trial, and he says that he has been threatened over the telephone; but he is not afraid. Mrs. Albert Patterson is the widow of the man who was murdered, and her son John is prosecuting the murderers. She says she never saw a free election there until the last city election. She says they have been in the fight for a long time.
On the banks of the Chattahoochee River are Columbus in Georgia and Phenix City in Alabama. For many years an industry flourished selling vice. A band sings “Phenix City Blues” about the city of sin. Soldiers and others gamble. Young Fred Gage (Biff McGuire) is playing cards with Ellie Rhodes (Kathryn Grant). He is in law school and says he wants to marry her. She is making $200 a week and does not want to quit. A man is beaten up and thrown out in the street. Fred goes outside and sees police take him away in their car.
In a back room Rhett Tanner (Edward Andrews) tells Cassie (Jean Carson) he will not fire Ellie because Fred’s father Ed Gage may find out things. Rhett tells Ellie to take good care of their customers.
Rhett walks on the street to his car and drives to the Coulter building. He goes in the office of Albert Patterson (John McIntire) and notes he is taking in his son John as a partner. Rhett says he will need his business. Rhett asks Pat to join him. He says gambling has been good to his father and him. Rhett says he does not like trouble, and he warns him that Ed Gage has been trying to get him on their side. Albert says he will not reform Phenix City. Rhett offers him $25,000 a year to be their attorney. Albert asks him what he is afraid of. Rhett says he is not afraid of anything. Albert asks him to help the town instead of hurting it. Rhett says he likes old friends and hopes he will change his mind. Rhett leaves. In the hall Rhett warns Hugh Britton (George Mitchell) about his citizen committees.
At the airport Albert welcomes John Patterson (Richard Kiley), his wife Mary Jo (Lenka Peterson) and their children. John says he was prosecuting war criminals in Germany. Albert says they are going to be defending people. John drives them through the town. Mary Jo notices the vices. As they unload their bags from the car, Albert says the Russell County Betterment Association is meeting. The old vigilante groups no longer meet. Albert says they asked him to head it, but he won’t. Mary Jo asks about the murder rate. Ed Gage (Truman Smith) and Hugh Britton drive up and greet John and Albert, who declines to go to their meeting. They give John a ride to town so that he can buy baby oil and walk back. Ed asks three men to get out of the way of his car. They pull him out and beat him up and Britton too. Another car arrives, and people call for the police. John hears them and runs over to help them. He is knocked down too. The three men leave, and a policeman threatens to run in John.
They go to the Gunter office. John goes to the Poppy Club and tells Fred his father got beat up by Clem Wilson (John Larch) and two others. John gets into a fight with Clem, but Rhett tells Cassie he will not stop it. John knocks him out, and he runs out with Fred and Zeke Ward (James Edwards).
John goes to his father’s house. Mary Jo is upset, but John tells his father they are going to the meeting. Fred drives them to the Gunter Agency. John says he has faith in the ballot box. He quotes his father that the only way for evil to triumph is for the good men to do nothing. They ask him what they should do. John suggests they elect a good attorney general. They look at Albert, who says he is too old. Others try to convince him. He was elected to the senate. Albert says this has been going on for a long time. John calls him a defeatist, and he says they will win if it kills them. Albert says it could and leaves.
In the Athletic Club’s steam room Rhett asks Jeff who was at the meeting. He says young John may lead them. Barton says that John is smart. Rhett tells them to give him the full test.
On a bridge a man grabs Zeke Ward’s daughter and dumps her in front of Patterson’s house. A speeding car hits a boy on a bicycle. They come out and see she is dead with a note that that will happen to their kids too. John calls the police and demands they come. Mary Jo is packing, and the children cry. John says they can go to her mother’s for a while. She asks if John will stay with him, but he says no. She tells him to take them to Georgia and leave them there. She cries, and he holds her.
Fred looks at cars and sees a broken headlight on one. He looks at the registration, and a man knocks him out with a gun. Ellie asks Ed where Fred is, and Ed says he was looking for the car. At the police station they learn that Fred was taken to the hospital. Ed and Ellie drive to the hospital and learn that he was dead on arrival.
John tells his father that it was murder. Albert says he is still a lawyer. At the inquest Albert questions the officer who found Fred in a ditch. Albert proves that the ditch was soft with sawdust. Albert calls Clem Wilson and questions him. He asks if he threw the body from the car, but Clem denies it. Albert calls James Kirby, who says the blood on a seat cover from Clem’s car is the same type. The jury decides that the death was accidental. John says they were scared, and they leave. Outside Rhett says that Clem was in the club. Rhett offers to get up a fund for Fred. Albert tells him he is going to fight him by running for attorney general.
John takes his wife and children to Georgiana and kisses her goodbye. She says she will go with him, and he says he loves her more than ever.
Men use violence against places and people who support Patterson for attorney general. They throw away newspapers. Albert travels across the state and makes speeches, telling people what is happening in his home town. That night they set fire to the evidence in an office. Ellie keeps her job in order to help them.
On television Hugh Bentley makes a speech while someone bombs his home. John makes a speech in the street to urge people to vote. When they do not vote, violence and corruption reigns over them. John points out Rhett Tanner, Jenkins, and others, and people shout at them as they walk away. Votes are bought and sold. Violence and sex are used. The police are playing cards.
In the steam room Jenkins and Rhett say he was elected, but he has not been sworn in. Ellie calls and tells Albert who she saw. Albert tells John he is going to the office, and John is worried he may be killed.
Ellie sees Rhett leave with three men, and she hears him give orders it is to be tonight. Cassie tells Ellie she has customers. Ellie runs out, and Cassie tells Rhett she may tip them off. Ellie calls Patterson, and John says his father went to the office. She says she will go there. Ellie sees men shoot Albert in his car. He tries to walk and falls down. A man asks who shot him, but he cannot speak. Rhett orders his boys to pick up Ellie.
John says they killed him and cries. He says he should have gone with him. A crowd gathers at night, and Hugh Bentley says the only law Phenix City respects comes out of a gun. Another says they should do it tonight. John says they are waiting for them and will kill them too. His father said the time of vigilantes is over. He says the law will get them, or he will himself. John gets a call from Ellie, and she says she saw the murder. John says he will go to her. Jeff calls Rhett and tells him where Ellie is.
John parks his car and runs across a bridge to Zeke Ward’s house. He goes in and is attacked. He and Zeke fight the men while Zeke’s sister screams. John uses a chair to knock a man out. John asks where Ellie went, and he finds her dead. Zeke’s sister stops Zeke from killing a man. John sees Rhett in back and fights him. They roll down a hill into a river. Rhett says he killed Ellie, not his dad. Zeke manages to stop John from killing Rhett.
John goes home and calls the state capital. He asks the crowd to shout so that they won’t say no again. He says they are sending the militia to put Phenix City under martial law.
Soldiers occupy the town and dismantle the gambling equipment in the Poppy Club. John makes a speech as the new attorney general, and he says his duty is to bring to justice his father’s murderers and keep the gambling in Phenix City closed; with God’s help he will not fail.
This docudrama depicts a criminal organization that thrived on gambling and other vices in a city that catered to soldiers from nearby Fort Benning. A few courageous citizens finally were able to take a stand against them when they won an election for attorney general. The criminals’ use of violence and murder brought about their downfall as the power of the state was eventually mobilized to bring them to justice.