On August 2nd, 1946, law abiding citizens of the United States of America used armed force, see: 2nd Amendment, to over turn their local, brutalizing, body of Government. These peaceful Americans had demanded honest, open elections & for years they had asked for State of Federal election monitors to prevent what was obvious voting fraud — secret ballot counts, forged ballots, and intimidation by armed sheriff’s deputies. Their cries for help fell on deaf ears.
A good chunk of these Americans were actually veterans, having recently returned home from the battlefields of Germany in World War II. Having fought to free other countries from tyrannical regimes, they flat our refused to accept such abuse by their own Government.
Tennessee had laws already on the books to “prevent” voting fraud, such as
- ballot boxes had to be shown to be empty before voting;
- Polling booths had to allow poll-watchers
- armed law enforcement officers were barred from polling places;
- ballots had to be counted where any voter could watch.
But, the local Government in McMinn County, TN, chose to ignore these laws. In Early 1946, some 3,000 battle-hardened veterans decided to challenge the local Government, politically. Paul Cantrell had been elected Sheriff in the 1936, 1938, and 1940 elections by very slim margins. After serving as a State Senator beginning in 1942, Cantrell returned home in 1946 and, again, sought the Sheriff’s office.
159 McMinn County GI’s would later petition the FBI to send election monitors. Their requests went unanswered. This lack of response followed suit with the Federal Government’s neglect to respond to earlier allegations of election fraud in the county in 1940, 1942, and 1944.
The election was held on August 1, 1946. Pat Mansfield, current Sheriff, and original Chief Deputy to Paul Cantrell under the old Administration, showed up at voting booths with 200 armed deputies and began beating on poll watchers almost immediately. Tom Gillespie, a black man, was told by Sheriff’s Deputy C.M. Wise:
“Nigger, you can’t vote here today!”
Despite being beaten, Gillespie persisted; the enraged deputy Wise shot him in the back, immediately drawing a crowd. Thankfully, Gillespie later recovered.
Other deputies would go on to detain ex-GI-poll-watchers in a polling place, saying it made the ballot count “public”. As a crowd began to gather, Sheriff Mansfield told his deputies to disperse the crowd, but before much was done, the two GI’s smashed a big window and escaped. The crowd, now surging forward, was met by a tightly wound, half circle of deputies, guns drawn, blocking off the entrance to the polling place. One deputy, raising his gun high, was quoted as shouting:
“You sons-of-bitches cross this street and I’ll kill you!”
Now, fearing the resistance gathering outside, Sheriff Mansfield instructed his deputies to take the ballot boxes to the County Jail for secret counting. A move that would prove to be the final straw.
The GI’s, short on readily available firearms & ammunition, borrowed keys to gain entry to the National Guard & State Guard Armories, and managed to procure (3) M-1 Rifles, (5) .45 caliber pistols, and (24) British Enfield Rifles. By 8:00 p.m. that night, a large crowd of armed, angry GI’s and every day citizens occupied the high ground, surrounding the jail, demanding the ballot boxes be made public, for tallying the results.
The first official shots of The Battle of Athens were fired from inside the Jail, by Sheriff’s Deputies, wounding two GI’s. For the next 30 minutes, gun fire erupted from the hill towards the jail, as every armed civilian unleashed absolute Hell. Eventually, ammunition began to run low, and night had fallen, and, absent radios, the gunfire from the hill was rather uncoordinated, or, simply put:
“From the hillside, fire rose and fell in disorganized cascades. More than anything else, people were simply ‘shooting at the jail’.”
Sheriff’s deputies retreated farther into the jail, hoping to wait out the gunfire until “backup” could arrive. Tennessee Governor McCord mobilized the State’s Guard in an effort to scare the GI’s into retreating. The Tennessee State Guard never went to Athens that day, however; fearing the armed resistance & presence of veteran force would deter anyone in the State Guard from firing.
By now, rioting had broken out all around the city, mainly targeting police cars. and at 2:00 a.m. on August 2, 1946, the patience of the armed resistance finally ran out. Men from Meigs County threw sticks of dynamite towards the jail, damaging the main façade, breaching it’s defenses. The panicked deputies surrendered immediately. The Citizen resistance quickly secured the building & Paul Cantrell, having almost been shot, faded into the night. Calm soon returned to McMinn County, Citizens posted guards and the rifles that were borrowed from the Armory were cleaned and returned before sun-up.
Across 5 precincts, the GI Candidate for Sheriff, Knox Henry, won 1,168 votes to Cantrell’s 789. Throughout the election, other GI candidates won in similar landslides for different offices, and went to work immediately cleaning up their local Government. The jail was repaired, newly elected officials implemented a $5,000 pay limit, and members of the previous Administration were replaced.
The General Election passed, quietly, on November 5th, 1946 and the rule of law had been restored. An armed, angry group of every day citizens, mixed with veteran support, had finally had enough of an over reaching Government. They drew a line in the sand and, once that line was crossed, opened fire, saying “no more!”. The Battle of Athens sent shock waves through the nation back when it happened, making headlines from coast to coast.
To this day, the only person to ever face charges from the events that later became know as the Battle of Athens was Sheriff’s Deputy C.M. Wise who was sentenced 1-3 years in prison for shooting an unarmed man, Tom Gillespie, in the back for nothing more than trying to cast his vote.
The 2nd Amendment means something. It is not about hunting. It is not about collecting guns, or going to the shooting range. It’s not about pink pistols, fashion statements, or passing a gun down from generation to generation. No. While those are all “icing on the cake”, the 2nd Amendment is, at its core, simply about the Right of the People to Keep & Bear Arms in order to keep in check any body of Government, to prevent it from becoming too powerful and crushing the will of the people beneath it’s enormous might. The Battle of Athens serves as a reminder of what CAN happen when Government grows too corrupt, and just how important the 2nd Amendment is if it were to ever happen again.
Click the “Next” button below to begin viewing a series of “Headlines” from across the Nation all in response to this momentous event that, for whatever reason, is not mentioned in one single Federal Government Regulated High School text book today.
McMinn A Warning — By Eleanor Roosevelt
New York, Monday — After any war, the use of force throughout the world is almost taken for granted. Men involved in the war have been trained to use force, and they have discovered that, when you want something, you can take it. The return to peacetime methods governed by law and persuasion is usually difficult.
We in the U.S.A., who have long boasted that, in our political life, freedom in the use of the secret ballot made it possible for us to register the will of the people without the use of force, have had a rude awakening as we read of conditions in McMinn County, Tennessee, which brought about the use of force in the recent primary. If a political machine does not allow the people free expression, then freedom-loving people lose their faith in the machinery under which their government functions.
In this particular case, a group of young veterans organized to oust the local machine and elect their own slate in the primary. We may deplore the use of force but we must also recognize the lesson which this incident points for us all. When the majority of the people know what they want, they will obtain it.
Any local, state or national government, or any political machine, in order to live, must give the people assurance that they can express their will freely and that their votes will be counted. The most powerful machine cannot exist without the support of the people. Political bosses and political machinery can be good, but the minute they cease to express the will of the people, their days are numbered.
This is a lesson which wise political leaders learn young, and you can be pretty sure that, when a boss stays in power, he gives the majority of the people what they think they want. If he is bad and indulges in practices which are dishonest, or if he acts for his own interests alone, the people are unwilling to condone these practices.
When the people decide that conditions in their town, county, state or country must change, they will change them. If the leadership has been wise, they will be able to do it peacefully through a secret ballot which is honestly counted, but if the leader has become inflated and too sure of his own importance, he may bring about the kind of action which was taken in Tennessee.
If we want to continue to be a mature people who, at home and abroad, settle our difficulties peacefully and not through the use of force, then we will take to heart this lesson and we will jealously guard our rights. What goes on before an election, the threats or persuasion by political leaders, may be bad but it cannot prevent the people from really registering their will if they wish to.
The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.
The Daily Post-Athenian, Athens, Tenn., August 7, 1946
Lincoln Said It And It Applies Now As Then
“The government, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it.” Abraham Lincoln
We have seen the latter part of the above quotation exercised here in McMinn County. We now have the opportunity to see the first part of it carried out.
What Lincoln meant was just this: The government of any group of people is in the hands of the people and they must carry on an active part in maintaining their government unless they want to abide by the rule of a few unscrupulous persons who find ways and means of getting the reins of power in governmental offices. If the people as a whole do not maintain a vigilant watch over matters of government a few people, grasping for power and domination find it easy to undermine all the principles of democracy.
It has been said that the situation now prevailing in McMinn County puts its citizens in the best position of any county in the state and possibly in the nation as to the control and manipulation of its government.
We are in just that position if the people as a whole will attend the county-wide mass meetings tomorrow night and participate in the election of the representatives of their respective communities who will serve on the Board of Directors of the Good government League of McMinn County.
The people who are elected must have the knowledge that they have the backing of all the people in their community when they go to the various meetings of the Board of Directors and vote on the matters of government that come before that body.
The choice is in your hands; 1. Take an active part in your government, as is your duty and privilege as a citizen, or 2. The next time you find that your government has fallen into the hands of unscrupulous politicians just say, “It’s my own fault, I had a chance to do something about it but slept through it.”
The Daily Post-Athenian, Athens, Tenn., August 21, 1946
Arkansas GIs Threat New Riots
Little Rock, Ark., Aug. 9 (UP) — Determined veterans’ opposition to entrenched local political machines flared heatedly in several Arkansas counties today, and one GI candidate said the Athens, Tenn., rioting would be “mild in comparison if there are any irregularities” at the polls.
At Malvern, William Weaver, veteran and candidate for sheriff in Hot Springs County, charged his opponent, Ed Deere, was “custodian” of the ballot boxes and warned that “what will happen here” would eclipse the Tennessee GI political revolt.
In Yell County, near the Oklahoma border, a crowd of 1500 veterans prepared for a mass meeting tonight to draft an independent ticket to oppose the machine slate of Chancellor John E. Chambers in general elections in the “free state of Yell.”
In Hot Spring County, Weaver and Coyle Collie, veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, are trying to overthrow the long-entrenched machine of Sheriff Jack Knight.
GIs at Malvern planned a meeting tomorrow night. Weaver said “we just want to get a foot in the door of Knight’s ‘little Tammany’ machine.”
Meanwhile, a five-man committee of veterans found an 87-vote discrepancy in votes cast for county treasurer, thus placing Norman Gray, veterans’ candidate, in a runoff with incumbent Treasurer Ernest Stroud. The first official count declared Stroud the winner with a majority, but disgruntled GI forces appointed the committee last night to examine the ballots.
In Ouachita a hot election loomed in which veterans are opposing veterans.
Despite a no-political clause in its constitution, the Arkansas Department of Veterans of Foreign Wars entered the picture with a statement by State Commander Bob Ed. Loftin, who charged politicians were trying to “use” the VFW vote to influence undecided voters.
In Hot Springs (Garland County), a final move to defeat the only successful GI candidate against Mayor Leo McLaughlin’s potent local machine, failed today.
Prosecuting Atty. Curtis Ridgeway, defeated by ex-Marine Col. Signey McMath, demanded a recount, but the new totals changed only two votes.
McMath was the only veteran-supported candidate to win the recent primary.
The Knoxville Journal, August 10, 1946
Repeat on Athens Narrowly Avoided
Alamo, Tenn., Aug 7 (AP) — a Crockett County political leader revealed today that violence similar to that which marked the Tennessee election at Athens last week was narrowly avoided here.
J. T. Green, post commander of the American Legion, disclosed that two mass meetings of veterans were held to dissipate tension among the supporters of an air force veteran, John Paul Butler, 26, who ran for state representative.
“Our boys were ready to go,” said Green, “but we didn’t want an Athens job here. We want to see what can be done legally in the matter.”
Butler, whose campaign was managed by Green, was defeated by former State Sen. W. H. Stallings of near-by Friendship by 14 votes. Green said the result would be contested before the state primary board. “It would have been the same as Athens here,” said Butler, “except that we quieted our boys down. We talked them out of using violence.”
Butler said his opponent was supported by “a machine.”