I hadn’t heard of this one before. After the Second World War, a bunch of returning veterans used force of arms in Athens, Tennessee, to break a corrupt party machine that was controlling the elections and local government.
The local police were using predatory ticketing to fund the local party machine; it reads a lot like current U.S. asset forfeiture practice.
A state law enacted in 1941 reduced local political opposition to Crump’s officials by reducing the number of voting precincts from 23 to 12 and reducing the number of justices of the peace from fourteen to seven (including four “Cantrell men”). The sheriff and his deputies worked under a fee system whereby they received money for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more arrests, the more money they made.Because of this fee system, there was extensive “fee grabbing” from tourists and travelers. Buses passing through the county were often pulled over and the passengers were randomly ticketed for drunkenness, whether guilty or not. Between 1936 and 1946, these fees amounted to almost $300,000.
During the war, two service men on leave were shot and killed by Cantrell thugs. The servicemen of McMinn County heard of what was going on and were anxious to get home and do something about it. One veteran said he “thought a lot more about McMinn County than he did about the Japs. If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!” The scene was ripe for a confrontation when McMinn County’s GIs were demobilized. When they arrived home the deputies targeted the returning GIs, one reported “A lot of boys getting discharged [were] getting the mustering out pay. Well, deputies running around four or five at a time grapping up every GI they could find and trying to get that money off of them, they were fee grabbers, they wasn’t on a salary back then.”
The Battle centers around the jail where the Sheriff has retreated, with the ballot boxes, and a pile of hired-in armed men, to rig the vote counting.
Polls ClosingAs the polls closed, and counting began (sans the three boxes taken to the jail), the GI-backed candidates had a 3 to 1 lead. When the GIs heard the deputies had taken the ballot boxes to the jail, Bill White exclaimed, “Boy, they doing something. I’m glad they done that. Now all we got to do is whip on the jail.”The GIs recognized that they had broken the law, and that Cantrell would likely receive reinforcements in the morning, so the GIs felt the need to resolve the situation quickly. The deputies knew little of military tactics, but the GIs knew them well. By taking up the second floor of a bank across the street from the jail, the GIs were able to reciprocate any shots from the jail with a barrage from above.By 9:00 PM, Paul Cantrell, Pat Mansfield, George Woods (Speaker of the State House of Representatives and Secretary of the McMinn County Election Commission), and about 50 deputies were in the jail, allegedly rummaging through the ballot boxes. Wood and Mansfield constituted a majority of the election commission and could therefore certify and validate the count from within the jail.
The Battle BeginsEstimates of the number of veterans besieging the jail vary from several hundred to as high as 2,000. Bill White had at least 60 under his command. White split his group with Buck Landers taking up position at the bank overlooking the jail while White took the rest by the Post Office.Just as the estimates of people involved vary widely, accounts of how the Battle of Athens began and its actual course disagree.Edgerton and Williams recall that when the men reached the jail, it was barricaded and manned by 55 deputies. The veterans demanded the ballot boxes but were refused. They then opened fire on the jail, initiating a battle that lasted several hours by some accounts, considerably less by others.As Lones Selber, author of the 1985 American Heritage magazine article wrote: “Opinion differs on exactly how the challenge was issued.” White says he was the one to call it out: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Moments later the night exploded in automatic weapons fire punctuated by shotgun blasts. “I fired the first shot,” White claimed, “then everybody started shooting from our side.” A deputy ran for the jail. “I shot him; he wheeled and fell inside of the jail.”
Read the whole thing, including the aftermath.