The Battle of Athens
2 AUGUST 1946
On 2 August 1946, some Americans, brutalized by their county government, used armed force to overturn it. These Americans wanted honest, open elections. For years they had asked for state or Federal election monitors to prevent vote fraud — forged ballots, secret ballot counts, and intimidation by armed sheriff’s deputies — by the local political boss. They got no help.
These Americans’ absolute refusal to knuckle-under had been hardened by service in World War II. Having fought to free other countries from murderous regimes, they rejected vicious abuse by their county government. These Americans had a choice. Their state’s Constitution – Article 1, Section 26 – recorded their right to keep and bear arms for the common defense. Few “gun control” laws had been enacted.
II. The Setting
These Americans were Tennesseeans of McMinn County, located between Chattanooga and Knoxville, in Eastern Tennessee. The two main towns were Athens and Etowah.
McMinn Countians had long been independent political thinkers. They also had long:
accepted bribe-taking by politicians and/or the Sheriff to overlook illicit whiskey-making and gambling;
financed the sheriff’s department from fines – usually for speeding or public drunkenness – which promoted false arrests;
put up with voting fraud by both Democrats and Republicans.
Tennessee State law barred voting fraud:
ballot boxes had to be shown to be empty before voting;
poll-watchers had to be allowed;
armed law enforcement officers were barred from polling places;
ballots had to be counted where any voter could watch.
III. The Circumstances
The Great Depression had ravaged McMinn County. Drought broke many farmers; workforces shrank. The wealthy Cantrell family, of Etowah, backed Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1932 election, hoping New Deal programs would revive the local economy and help Democrats to replace Republicans in the county government. So it proved.
Paul Cantrell was elected Sheriff in the 1936, 1938, and 1940 elections, but by slim margins. The Sheriff was the key County official. Cantrell was elected to the State Senate in 1942 and 1944; his chief deputy, Pat Mansfield, was elected sheriff. In 1946, Paul Cantrell again sought the Sheriff’s office.
IV. World War II Ends; Paul Cantrell’s Troubles Begin
At end-1945, some 3,000 battle-hardened veterans returned to McMinn County. Sheriff Mansfield’s deputies had brutalized many in McMinn County; the GIs held Cantrell politically responsible for Mansfield’s doings. Early in 1946, some newly-returned ex-GIs decided:
to challenge Cantrell politically;
to offer an all ex-GI, non-partisan ticket;
to promise a fraud-free election.
In ads and speeches the GI candidates promised:
an honest ballot count;
reform of county government.
At a rally, a GI speaker said, “‘The principals that we fought for in this past war do not exist in McMinn County. We fought for democracy because we believe in democracy but not the form we live under in this county.'” (Daily Post-Athenian, 17 June 1946, p. 1).
At end-July 1946, 159 McMinn County GIs petitioned the FBI to send election monitors. There was no response. The Department of Justice had not responded to McMinn Countians’ complaints of election fraud in 1940, 1942, and 1944.
V. From Ballots to Bullets
The election was held on 1 August. To intimidate voters, Mansfield brought in some 200 armed “deputies”. GI poll-watchers were beaten almost at once. At about 3 p.m., Tom Gillespie, an African-American voter, was told by a Sheriff’s deputy, “‘Nigger, you can’t vote here today!!'”. Despite being beaten, Gillespie persisted; the enraged deputy shot him. The gunshot drew a crowd. Rumors spread that Gillespie had been “shot in the back”; he later recovered. (C. Stephen Byrum, The Battle of Athens; Paidia Productions, Chattanooga TN, 1987; pp. 155-57).
Other deputies detained ex-GI poll-watchers in a polling place, as that made the ballot count “public”. A crowd gathered. Sheriff Mansfield told his deputies to disperse the crowd. When the two ex-GIs smashed a big window and escaped, the crowd surged forward. “The deputies, with guns drawn, formed a tight half-circle around the front of the polling place. One deputy, “his gun raised high …shouted: ‘You sons-of-bitches cross this street and I’ll kill you!'” (Byrum, p. 165).
Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail for counting. The deputies seemed to fear immediate attack, by the “people who had just liberated Europe and the South Pacific from two of the most powerful war machines in human history.” (Byrum, pp. 168-69).
Short of firearms and ammunition, the GIs scoured the county to find them. By borrowing keys to the National Guard and State Guard Armories, they got three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols, and 24 British Enfield rifles. The armories were nearly empty after the war’s end.
By eight p.m., a group of GIs and “local boys” headed for the jail to get the ballot boxes. They occupied high ground facing the jail but left the back door unguarded to give the jail’s defenders an easy way out.
Rest of story..
~Steve~ H/T Joseph