Saturday, May 17, 2008

The Battle for Athens, Tennessee, 1946

I was telling a coworker about the book A Planet for Texans, in which citizens sometimes have the right to assassinate politicians, and he told me about a little-known piece of U.S. history.

In 1936, political power in McMinn County, Tennessee was obtained by Paul Cantrell of Etowah, who ran as the Democratic candidate for county sheriff and successfully seized power from what had been a Republican-dominated county since the Civil War. Cantrell ended up putting in place a thoroughly corrupt political machine that retained power for a decade--a crony of his, George Woods, was sent to the state legislature, and the county was redistricted to reduce the number of voting precincts and justices of the peace, and Cantrell's power was solidified. There were unresolved reports of county election fraud in 1940, 1942, and 1944. The McMinn County Court, still dominated by Republicans, attempted to purchase voting machines to eliminate the fraud, but Woods, with the support of Democrats in the state legislature, responded by abolishing the county court. It all came to an end when Cantrell's machine attempted to steal the 1946 election and was stopped with armed force in a battle involving more than 500 armed men with guns and dynamite who weren't afraid to use them--yet remarkably, no one was killed.

What happened in 1946 was that a bunch of GIs returned home from the war. A group of them decided that they didn't just fight for liberty in WWII to come back home to be governed by corrupt leadership, so they put together a slate to run for five county offices, including sheriff, under their own independent party. The GIs put an ad in the newspaper and drove around the county with a loudspeaker repeating their slogan, "your vote will be counted as cast." Veterans from neighboring Blount County volunteered to help the McMinn County GIs in monitoring the election.

On the day of the election, August 1, 1946, the county saw the largest voter turnout in its history. In the afternoon, the Cantrell machine posted its own armed guards at each precinct, in preparation for transporting the ballot boxes to the county jail in Athens for counting. The GIs began assembling in Otto Kennedy's Essankay Garage and Tire shop. At that meeting, it was reported that telegrams had been sent in late July to Gov. Jim McCord in Nashville and Tom Clark, the U.S. attorney general, asking for assistance to ensure a fair election, but neither had been answered. Those at the meeting agreed that those present who didn't have their weapons with them should go home and get them. Most were back and armed by 3 p.m.

At that time, an elderly black farmer, Tom Gillespie, was told by Windy Wise, a Cantrell armed guard, that he could not vote, and Wise ended up beating him with brass knuckles and shooting him in the back. The two GI poll watchers at the precinct were taken hostage by Wise and Karl Neill, another Cantrell guard, and an angry crowd began to gather outside the polling place, the Athens Water Works. The two GIs ended up breaking through a plate glass window to escape into the crowd, and someone in the crowd shouted, "Let's go get our guns!" When the Chief Deputy Boe Dunn and other Cantrell men showed up to get the ballot box to transport to the jail, they heard of this statement from Wise, and Dunn sent two deputies to the GI headquarters to make arrests. Those deputies were no match for the GIs, however, and were disarmed and taken hostage along with two others sent as reinforcements, and another three sent shortly thereafter. Those seven were beaten and then taken out to the woods and shackled to trees.

At another precinct, the polling place had been set up at the Dixie Cafe across an alley from the jail, where the GIs monitoring had seen a Cantrell man, Minus Wilburn, allowing minors to vote and giving cash to voters throughout the day. At about 3:45 p.m. when he attempted to allow a young woman to vote despite her name not appearing on the voter registration list and not having a poll tax receipt, one of the GIs protested and attempted to physically prevent Wilburn from depositing her ballot. Wilburn hit him in the head with a blackjack and kicked him in the face as he fell to the floor. Wilburn closed the polling place, put guards at both ends of the alley, and transported the ballot box to the jail and took the two GI poll-watchers prisoner.

It looked like Cantrell was about to successfully steal another election:
The Cantrell forces had calculated that if they could control the first, eleventh and twelfth precincts in Athens and the one in Etowah, the election was theirs. The ballot boxes from the Water Works (the eleventh) and the Dixie Cafe (the twelfth) were safely in the jail. The voting place for the first precinct, the courthouse, was barricaded by deputies who held four GIs hostage, and Paul Cantrell himself had Etowah under control.
For what happened next (and a better account of what I've just described), I recommend this account from American Heritage Magazine by Lones Selber, who watched the battle of Athens first-hand as a seven-year-old child.

Although the GIs were widely criticized for their actions, they seem quite justified to me--their actions strike me as exactly what the 2nd Amendment is supposed to allow citizens to do in response to a corrupt government, remove it from power. (And really, if you read the full account, it was the fair outcome of the election that removed the corrupt officials from power, the GIs really just prevented the election from being stolen.)

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