The battle of Athens: When WWII veterans took up arms against a corrupt local government in Tennessee

Aftermath of the riot
The aftermath of the riot. Photo by Tennessee State Library and Archives

In 1946 a non-partisan political option made of WWII veterans applied to the local elections in McMinn County, Tennessee. When they realized that the elections were being rigged, they took up arms and decided to defend their rights without relying on the State.

Submitted by nikolabudanovic on November 27, 2017

In 1946, a small town of Athens, Tennessee, became a true battleground, as a siege was laid on the town jail by crowd mostly consisted of WWII veterans who decided to take justice into their own hands, as the local politics were plagued by corruption, police brutality and electoral fraud.

The political turmoil was present prior to the Second World War, when an influential political figure in from Memphis, Edward Hull "Boss" Crump, appointed Paul Cantrell as the candidate for Sheriff in 1936. Cantrell won the election in what became known as the "vote grab of 1936".

Around that time a system of fees was introduced in the Sheriff's office, which meant that a fee would be paid per arrest. The system proved to be very dysfunctional ― shady arrests were made, often without substantial evidence, which also included numerous fines for "drunkenness" and "fee grabbing" from tourists and travelers on a similar pretext. In a period between 1936 and 1946, it is estimated that more than 300,000 dollars amounted to these fees.

In the meantime, Cantrell ran for State Senate, leaving his trusty deputy, Pat Mansfield, in charge. The racquet worsened, and the local population was greatly displeased. After several investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice failed to make a dent in this lucrative violation of authority, the situation reached its boiling point.

During wartime, thousands of men from the McMinn County, which includes Athens, joined the fight against fascism overseas. The shortage of able men led to low criteria in employing law-enforcement officers, which often included ex-convicts with violent criminal records.

As the war ended in 1945, around 3,000 soldiers from McMinn returned home, only to find that the corruptive local government was stronger than ever. Apart from the sheriff's office, the corrupt clique, controlled by E. H. Crump held the local media, schools, and pretty much all of the government institutions.

The GI's decided to respond to this. During the 1946 local elections, they formed a non-partisan political option, stating their candidates. Knox Henry, a decorated veteran of the North African campaign, was elected by the GI party to run against Cantrell who was once again running for Sheriff, while his former deputy Mansfield was holding the chair.

Due to prior scams involved in local elections, the GI's pointed out their slogan ― Your Vote Will Be Counted As Cast.

In addition, a precaution measure was made ― another veteran, Bill White, organized a militia which was to observe the voting process in case Cantrell and Mansfield tried to rig them again. The veteran militia adopted the name The Fighting Bunch, and pistols were handed out to around 60 men who joined in.

The elections scheduled for the 1st of August 1946 were followed by a number of incidents. On one of the polling places in Athens, an elderly African-American farmer called Tom Gillespie was refused to cast his vote by Sheriff Mansfield's patrolman, C.M. "Windy" Wise.

Wise used racists slurs, despite the presence of a protesting GI poll watcher, and denied Gillespie his right to vote. The deputy then hit Gillespie with a brass knuckle. The farmer dropped his ballot and tried to run away. In response, Wise pulled out his gun and shot him in the back.

This event sparked more quarrel. After a few stand-offs between Sheriff Mansfield's deputies and the GI militia, a crowd was gathered in protest of the obvious violation of protocol and the clear intention of the administration to rig the election and keep the office despite the will of the people.

The drop that spilled the cup was the arrest and brutal beating of Bob Hairrell, who was one of the poll watchers. Hairrell protested when a girl was brought in by the deputies to cast her ballot, despite the fact that she had no poll tax receipt and who was not listed in the voter registration. The girl also seemed to be underage.

In response to Hairrell's protest, he was arrested and the voting process was halted on that polling place. The ballot box, together with the handcuffed GI was taken to the county jail in the town of Athens.

After hearing this, Bill White ordered his men to break into the National Guard Armory to steal weapons. After they looted the armory, White's fighting bunch was prepared for combat. They had 60 Enfield rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns and enough ammo to start a minor war in the McMinn County.
When the polls closed, all ballot boxes were transported to the same jail. Allegedly, White responded to the given situation by saying:

Boy, they doing something. I'm glad they done that. Now, all we got to do is whip on the jail.

Very soon, a siege was laid on the county jail. Paul Cantrell, Pat Mansfield, and around 50 or more deputies were caught red-handed while counting the votes without the presence of the second party. The GI's occupied the second floor of a bank that was located right across the street from the jail. The high ground gave them a strategic advantage, as they were able to return fire with a barrage anytime someone took a shot from the jail.

Cantrell and his partners were pinned down. The GI's knew that the situation had to be resolved quickly before the authorities send in reinforcements and start a potential bloodbath.

Some deputies who were outside the jail tried to lift the siege but without success. Soon the captives within the building were running through the back door, leaving their weapons behind. White ordered that the escapees pass, but a number of deputies together with Cantrell and Mansfield refused to surrender.

Then the militia threw Molotov cocktails on the building but failed to create any substantial damage. At one point, an ambulance car arrived. White and his men held their fire, as they expected that it was to evacuate the wounded from the jail. An immediate ceasefire was in effect. To everyone's surprise, the ambulance served for Cantrell and Mansfield to slip through, while leaving their men behind.

White's top priority now was to secure the ballot boxes. Rumors of reinforcements were circulating among the men and time was of the essence.

Several dynamite sticks were thrown on the jail, each of them causing damage to the building and its surroundings. Eventually, the doors were breached and the rest of the deputies surrendered.

In front of the jail, an angry mob was gathered and several Mansfield's men were badly beaten, including Wise who shot Tom Gillespie earlier that day.

Riots ensued, causing material damage all over the town. Police cars, as well as deputies private vehicles were largely targeted by the mob.

In the aftermath of the riots, the votes were finally counted and the GI party candidate, Henry Knox, was elected Sheriff of the McMinn County.

The event initiated a statewide movement against corrupt political machines installed all across Tennessee and related, in one way or another, to Edward Hull Crump. Even though the GI local government was dealing with the corruption, the fight eventually got the best of them.

In an open letter signed by several members of the party the disappointment in the system is obvious:
We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making.

The government collapsed in 1947, and it was replaced with a clique similar to the one they were fighting against.

*This text has been initially published for War History Online.



6 years 7 months ago

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Submitted by Steven. on December 10, 2017

Fascinating stuff, thanks for writing and posting!