There is rarely a shortage of compelling, interesting or downright weird stories to find around Alabama. This year was certainly no exception.
The following top-5 list is mine, and I think it’s a decent mix of top stories and stories that contain oddities and nuance that make them the most unique, compelling stories that I reported on in 2022.
5. Massive Child Labor Violations
In July, citing police interviews and interviews with various people, Reuters News Agency broke a story about massive child labor violations happening at a company serving as a supplier to Hyundai’s Montgomery plant. The subsidiary, SMART Alabama, Inc., employed dozens of underage workers, according to interviews with numerous employees, with some as young as 12-years-old.
Making the story even worse for Alabama, the violations were first reported by a police department, which caught wind of the violations during a missing child case, to the Alabama Attorney General’s Office. No apparent action was taken by the AG’s office in the months after the violations were reported. Instead, it took the Reuters report to prompt swift intervention from the Labor Department – both at the state and national levels – and resulting fines and other corrective actions.
And it gets worse: During the investigation, Reuters reported earlier this month, child labor was found in at least four Alabama auto plants, with likely hundreds of child victims. Almost all of the children were immigrants who traveled to America in recent years.
To date, the Alabama AG’s office has failed to provide any answers as to what, if any, work it did to investigate – or to assist in investigations headed by other agencies – after learning of the allegations. It also has not explained why months went by after the initial allegations – leveled by a police department, no less – without action to investigate and end the practice.
4. Crazy Tallassee
There are times when I run across a story so insanely Alabama crazy that I have to repeatedly ask people – usually my sources who are relaying the information in the first place – if this is real. That was the case with “How Tallassee Went Crazy,” an in-depth feature on the fallout over former Tallassee Mayor Johnny Hammock’s accusation of several town business owners illegally taking federal government loans during the pandemic.
The story had it all – fraud accusations, high-speed chases, gun play, backstabbing, small town politics, good ol’ boy shenanigans, domestic violence, crooked elected officials, Facebook arguments, surprise resignations and lots of fighting.
3. The Greene County Casino Problem
Whenever there is discussion of a comprehensive gambling bill that might finally put to rest this state’s never-ending woes when it comes to finally taxing and regulating gambling, there is always one fly in the ointment: Greene County casino owners.
While GreeneTrack, the state’s second-oldest dog track, is typically included in those comprehensive plans – because it is the only Class III licensed facility in the area – the owners of the other Greene County casinos come crawling out of the woodwork to press lawmakers to vote against the bill because it will shut them down. But what they rarely mention is that many of them are operating improperly.
Several stories this year highlighted some of the problems with the “other” Greene casinos.
And then there was the problem with GreeneTrack. The Alabama Supreme Court, in an unprecedented ruling because of its ignoring of precedent, determined that GreeneTrack had lost its decade-long fight over alleged back taxes. The casino/dog track owed more than $70 million in taxes and it was now responsible for a tax rate that was higher than its income.
It was simply the latest in a seemingly endless series of stories on Alabama’s gambling woes.
2. America’s Lawyer gets his medal
It’s not often in life that you get to meet an actual American hero. I have. His name is Fred Gray.
This year, Gray finally got his due, when President Joe Biden awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his legal work. That legal work included some of the country’s most famous civil rights cases.
Gray served as attorney for Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and a host of other civil rights leaders. He filed the complaints in some of America’s most recognizable cases, arguing successfully to integrate Alabama’s public schools, to ban segregation in Alabama’s colleges, to allow the marchers to go from Selma to Montgomery, to outlaw voter suppression in Tuskegee and to give Black public school students a right to due process.
1. Mike Durant’s Past
It was a story that, honestly, seemed unbelievable at first glance: a legitimate American war hero and current candidate for U.S. Senate was once involved in a national scandal because he chose to support his father – and essentially disown his sister – after his father admitted to years of incest and abuse. And yet, there were the AP stories from 20-plus years earlier chronicling the sad and depressing story of Mike Durant’s family history.
Durant, a former Army pilot, garnered national attention, and was (rightfully) treated as an American hero, following his captivity in Somalia in the early 1990s. But shortly after his return from overseas, Durant became embroiled in a very ugly, and disturbing, family drama.
His sister, Mary Ryan, had accused their father of years of incest and abuse. And after a confrontation, Durant’s father admitted to the abuse.
Yet, for some reason – and opinions as to why vary – Durant chose to publicly support his father and sought, during media interviews at the time, to undercut his sister’s story.
In a sitdown interview with APR, Mary Ryan described in gut-punch detail the abuse she suffered and the heartbreak she felt when Durant turned his back on her. Her straightforward, open, honest and blunt presentation of the facts and of her life was one of the bravest things I’ve ever witnessed.
It’s unclear how much impact his history had on the U.S. Senate race overall, because the revelations gained traction at roughly the same time Katie Britt began to surge in the polling, but there’s little doubt that it stopped Durant’s campaign cold. He failed to make the runoff, finishing a distant third to Mo Brooks and Britt.