Athens, Tennessee: When Veterans Rebelled
Written by HMG Staff on 08/19/2019
The twenty-first century has been characterized by a dissatisfaction with the federal government unique in American history. Only 17% of Americans approve of the job Congress is doing. Such widespread disaffection has inevitably fueled calls for civil disobedience and extrajudicial citizen action. But is armed insurrection something Americans are capable of, and is it the ideal solution to our woes?
To ponder this question, Heroes Media Group looks to the Battle of Athens. Named for the birthplace of democracy, it’s the most recent armed uprising against a legitimate government in US history. It brought down a corrupt political machine, forever changed the involvement of veterans in the American electoral process, and offered precedent for civilian discontent with government for generations to come. It all occurred in a city named for the birthplace of democracy. And it’s a damned interesting story.
Crump’s Crooked Cops
To understand the Battle of Athens, one must first understand the Crump political machine. Based out of Memphis, businessman E.H. “Boss” Crump dominated Tennessee politics for four decades, employing patronage and ballot fixing to maintain power. Though the state was heavily Democratic at the time, Athens and the surrounding McMinn County remained Republican territory, and, thus, out of reach of Crump’s machine.
That changed in 1936 when Crump’s candidate for sheriff, Paul Cantrell, won election riding FDR’s coattails. Sheriff Cantrell and his handpicked successor Pat Mansfield paid their deputies with a fee system. That is, they were compensated for each person they arrested, booked, and released. This incentivized rampant fee-grabbing; deputies arbitrarily ticketed citizens and tourists for drunkenness and disorderly conduct, whether guilty or not. With most of McMinn County’s young men fighting in World War II, many of these deputies were ex-cons. Election fraud kept the Crump sheriffs in power for a decade despite broad disapproval in the county. Random beatings and shootings kept the agitated populace in line.
The situation flared further when the war ended and the GIs came back home to Athens. The veterans were accustomed to rowdy drinking during their off-hours, and had received back-pay upon returning from the front. This made them easy and lucrative targets for Mansfield’s deputies. In a later interview, Bill White, leader of the rebellion, said “Deputies [were] running around four or five at a time grapping [sic] up every GI they could find and trying to get that money off of them.” Fights between the GIs and the deputies were commonplace.
The Ballot or the Bullet
It didn’t take long for the GIs to sour. Having fought for freedom and democracy overseas, they had no patience for the authoritarian leadership of Mansfield. “If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!” veteran Ralph Duggan expressed in a contemporaneous news article.
The vets opted to run for local government positions themselves, forming the GI Non-Partisan League. At the top of the ballot was Knox Henry, a decorated veteran of the North African campaign, for sheriff. The League took special care to nominate candidates in accordance with the demographics of the county: three Republicans and two Democrats, ensuring the effort would truly be nonpartisan.
Worried the League could topple their regime, Cantrell returned to run for sheriff, as he was less reviled than Mansfield. The latter also hired out 200 deputies from neighboring counties and states to patrol during the election. The machine was not going down without a fight.
In response, Bill White organized a “fightin’ bunch” of young GIs to ensure Mansfield wouldn’t steal the election. The thirty or so young men used their back pay to buy pistols. White told them to watch polls on Election Day and intervene if deputies tried to intimidate or assault voters.
The situation became a powder keg. All it needed was a spark.
The Battle of Athens
The spark came from Mansfield’s side on Election Day, at the Athens Water Works polling place. A deputy punched Tom Gillespie, an elderly black farmer, with brass knuckles while he was casting his ballot. When he fled, the patrolman shot him in the back.
In response, GIs protested outside the polling station. Mansfield himself arrived to shut the station down and take the ballot boxes to the jail. They brought in George Wood, secretary of the county election commission. With him and Mansfield present, a majority of the election commission was gathered, and could therefore certify the results from the safety and privacy of the jail. When the GIs heard this, they left to arm themselves. Mansfield sent a team of deputies to arrest them. A team lead by White disarmed and captured the deputies.
Having broken the law, and knowing Mansfield would receive reinforcements the next day, White knew he had to act quickly. He ordered five men to break into the National Guard armory, where they stole rifles and Thompson guns. White and sixty other GIs set up on the second floor of a bank across the street from the jail. Cantrell was now also at the jail, along with more than fifty armed deputies. White shouted.
“You damn thieve grabbers, bring them damn ballot boxes out of there!”
A bolt clicked in the night, and the GIs opened fire.
The gunfight lasted for several hours. Around town, rioters targeted and burned police cars. The GIs knew that if they couldn’t end the battle by morning they’d be set upon by the national guard. Accordingly, White ordered the GIs to prepare Molotov cocktails. Unfortunately, none of them could throw the bottles far enough to reach the jail.
Thus, the dynamite came out. The vets flung charges across the street, blowing up a police cruiser. Then White and a couple GIs crawled across the street and planted charges on the jailhouse porch. The dynamite went off and took out a substantial portion of the wall. Now without cover, the deputies surrendered and gave up the ballot boxes.
Democracy Returns to Athens
With the battle over, the veterans counted every recovered ballot. Not only did Knox Henry won the race for sheriff, every League candidate triumphed. The Mansfield deputies resigned; Henry fired those who didn’t. One of the open deputy positions went to Bill White. A month later, the mayor and four Aldermen of Athens, all members of Crump’s machine, resigned.
Astoundingly, no one died in the battle. Even Gillespie eventually recovered. His shooter got three years – he was the only one to serve time for the events of the battle. Though the governor had dispatched the National Guard, he called them back upon hearing the battle’s outcome.
Veterans across Tennessee saw the concept of a GI Non-Partisan League as a means to enter American politics. The prospect of a third political party was bandied about across the state. And while it materialized, veterans became a dominant force in the political landscape. From 1953 to 1993, every president was a WWII veteran.
Next week, Heroes Media Group will discuss the thought process behind the GI Non-Partisan League, and why it never came to be.
Photo credit to Brian Stansberry @ Wikimedia Commons.