In the summer of 1946, war-weary GIs began to return from World War II battlefronts in Europe and Japan, ready to resume life in their sleepy Tennessee town. What they found, instead, infuriated them to the core. A power-hungry Democrat and his associates had since usurped local government and law enforcement, and had imposed a maniacal chokehold on the McMinn County town through extortive fines, excess laws, and arrests of anyone who opposed them.
While the soldiers were away fighting power-hungry foreign enemies in 1936, Paul Cantrell, a Democrat from a wealthy and prominent family, used that influence to win the position of sheriff. Though many Athens citizens strongly suspected Cantrell hadn’t been elected through entirely legal means, there appeared to be no way to challenge the results.
As the years passed, Cantrell and his deputies took full advantage of Tennessee law which gave the unscrupulous men a fee for each person arrested, jailed, and released. According to some accounts, the lawmen even pulled over buses that happened to pass through town, summarily arrested everyone on board for drunkenness — whether or not they actually were — in order to profit handily from their misfortune. But such arrests and fines required paperwork — which meant traceable money — and to some degree hindered the men’s ability to rake in cash.
“It was less troublesome to collect kickbacks for allowing roadhouses to operate openly,” American Heritage explained. “Cooperative owners would point out influential patrons. They were not bothered, but the rest were subject to shakedowns. Prostitution, liquor, and gambling grew so prevalent that it became common knowledge in Tennessee that Athens was ‘wide open.’”
Because Cantrell and his cronies faced only limited opposition, they thwarted subsequent elections by transporting ballot boxes from every precinct to the McMinn County Jail to be counted behind closed doors. Neutral elections observers became the ‘enemy’ and were frequently forcefully ejected from polling sites, if not arrested.
With nearly 10 percent of the town’s population fighting overseas, the beleaguered citizens didn’t feel there was much they could do to fight the nefarious political machine.
Cantrell eventually moved on to become a state senator, leaving Pat Mansfield to become his successor as sheriff — exactly as they had planned — but by the time soldiers were arriving home, Cantrell intended to resume his position as McMinn County Sheriff.
By 1946, most GIs had returned home to find the liberties and freedoms they assumed they’d fought for quashed by the succession of zealous sheriffs and their deputies, who made a racket of roughing up and arresting the former soldiers. But their profiteering scheme wasn’t exactly well-received.
Rather than accepting this iniquity, the GIs decided to remove the despised kleptocrats from power by running for office on a non-partisan platform. In response, Cantrell publicly accused the former soldiers of plotting to stuff ballot boxes in their favor — to which the GIs offered a $1,000 reward for verifiable proof that no one ever collected. Fully aware of their opponent’s own ballot-stuffing, the military men employed car-mounted loudspeakers to roll through Athens repeating one of their popular campaign slogans: YOUR VOTE WILL BE COUNTED AS CAST.
On election day August 1, 1946, voters thronged to the polls in record numbers. Mansfield had bolstered his staff of deputies by hiring law enforcement from other cities and even other states. Now some 300 strong, the lawmen hawkishly guarded voting precincts — but rather than looking out for fraud, the men roughed up veterans serving as poll watchers and anyone else they considered troublemakers.
Legally-appointed GI representative, Walter Ellis, became the first person arrested by Mansfield’s goons, after he protested ‘irregularities’ observed in the courthouse precinct. Several others soon followed — all arrested without just cause.
But one of the worst incidents occurred when an elderly black farmer, Tom Gillespie, attempted to cast his vote. One of Cantrell’s badged thugs sneered at the old man, “Nigger, you can’t vote here,” and proceeded to punch him with brass knuckles. When Gillespie dropped his ballot and moved for the door, the goon shot him in the back.
Hearing the gunshot, crowds swarmed into the streets, and Mansfield responded by shutting down the precinct and positioning armed guards to prevent access.
Gillespie’s shooting and the sheriff’s actions enraged the veterans, and one of them shouted, “Let’s go get our guns!”
After the former soldiers retrieved pistols, shotguns, and various other weapons, throngs of citizens joined them in surrounding the county jail where at least 25 deputies had run for cover. The GIs began firing in an attempt to draw the errant lawmen out — but it wasn’t until around 4 a.m. that they finally surrendered.
Many called for the corrupt to be hanged, but ultimately they “were taken to the edge of town, tied to trees, stripped naked and told not to come back.”
They eagerly complied.
But even this showdown hadn’t stopped Cantrell — as he retained control of the precincts and had pulled ahead in the election — and thus ordered polling sites to close early.
One fed up veteran, Bill White, who had fought in the Pacific theater, grew more irate as the day wore on and decided to rally his compatriots to action.
“You call yourselves GIs,” he bellowed, “you go over there and fight for three of four years — you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around … If you people don’t stop this, and now is the time and place, you people wouldn’t make a pimple on a fighting GI’s ass. Get guns …”
White and several others proceeded to raid the National and State Guard armories and returned, heavily armed, to the jail where Cantrell and the few cronies he had left, remained barricaded inside. They demanded Cantrell exit with the ballot boxes, but were met by silence.
After unleashing an — ultimately ineffective — “barrage of gunfire” on the jail, the men procured “a healthy supply of dynamite,” which worked like a charm: Cantrell and his men promptly surrendered.
Astonishingly, despite all the gunfire, explosives, and brutal force, there were no casualties in the Battle of Athens — even Gillespie survived the gunshot to his back.
Cantrell unsurprisingly lost by a landslide, and the victorious GIs immediately began returning the ex-sheriff’s extorted fees to the grateful citizens — eventually returning order to the long-suffering town.
These events were extreme, and though this momentous victory of citizens over corrupt crony politicians proved something can, indeed, be done to fight establishment malfeasance, armed revolt certainly isn’t a realistic or justifiable option now. But other options, particularly when instituted on a large scale, could prove just as fruitful.
One of the most effective ways to vote doesn’t involve elections or polls at all — withdrawing your money from the corporatist system which funds and backs corrupt politicians can be a decisive method to show your intolerance of their policies. Hit politicians where it hurts them most — their wallets — by growing your own organic food, participating in barter and trade, or by either refusing to vote in national elections or opting instead for a third party candidate.
Be creative in refusing to validate the system that directly permits such corruption — and worse — to continue.
When the law becomes so twisted it allows criminals to operate with impunity, that law is little more than hollow ordinance. If working within the system to change it from the inside isn’t fruitful — think Bernie Sanders — perhaps it’s time to work outside it.