The Battle Of Athens – When WWII Veterans Stood Up To The Corrupt Local Government In Tennessee

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

The political turmoil had been present before WWII. An influential political figure 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”.

From that point on a system of fees was introduced in the Sheriff’s Office, which meant the officers were paid per arrest. The system proved to be very dysfunctional. Shady arrests were made, often without substantial evidence, which included numerous fines for “drunkenness” and “fee grabbing” from tourists and travelers on a similar pretext.

In the period between 1936 and 1946, it is estimated that the fees amounted to more than 300,000 dollars.

In the meantime, Cantrell ran for State Senate, leaving his trusty deputy, Pat Mansfield, in charge. The racquet worsened, and the local population became increasingly displeased. When several investigations by the US Department of Justice failed to make a dent in the lucrative violation of authority, the situation reached boiling point.

During wartime, thousands of men from McMinn County, which includes Athens, had joined the fight against fascism overseas. The shortage of suitable men had led to the employment of law-enforcement officers who 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 corrupted clique, controlled by E. H. Crump held the local media, schools, and pretty much all of the government institutions.

The U.S. Navy troop transport USS West Point (AP-23) steams past the Statue of Liberty, bound for the New York City docks, while transporting troops home from Europe, 11 July 1945.
The U.S. Navy troop transport USS West Point (AP-23) steams past the Statue of Liberty, bound for the New York City docks, while transporting troops home from Europe, 11 July 1945.

The GI’s decided to respond. 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.

Also, a precautionary measure was implemented. Another veteran, Bill White, organized a militia to observe the voting process in case Cantrell and Mansfield tried to rig it again. The veteran militia adopted the name The Fighting Bunch, and pistols were handed out to around 60 men who joined it.

The county election poll opened on August 1, 1946, and involved some incidents. At one of the polling places in Athens, an elderly African-American farmer called Tom Gillespie was refused permission to cast his vote by Sheriff Mansfield’s patrolman, C.M. “Windy” Wise. Wise used racist 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.

The event sparked a few stand-offs between Sheriff Mansfield’s deputies and the GI militia. A crowd gathered in protest at 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 final straw 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 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 in that polling place. The ballot box, together with the handcuffed GI, was taken to the county jail in the town of Athens.

On hearing this, Bill White ordered his men to break into the National Guard Armory to steal weapons. After looting the armory, White’s fighting bunch prepared for combat. They had 60 Enfield rifles, 2 Thompson sub-machine guns and enough ammo to start a minor war in McMinn County.

When the polls closed, all ballot boxes were transported to Athens jail. Allegedly, White responded to the situation by saying:

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

Tennessee Historical Commission marker in Athens, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Photo: Brian Stansberry, CC-BY 3.0
Tennessee Historical Commission marker in Athens, Tennessee, in the southeastern United States. Photo: Brian Stansberry, CC-BY 3.0

A siege began 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 a 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 at them 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 sent in reinforcements and started a potential bloodbath.

Some deputies who were outside the jail tried to lift the siege but without success. A few of the captives within the building ran out the back door, leaving their weapons behind. White ordered that any escapees should be allowed to pass. But some deputies together with Cantrell and Mansfield refused to surrender.

Then the militia threw Molotov cocktails at the building but failed to create any substantial damage. At one point, an ambulance arrived. White and his men held their fire, as they expected it was to evacuate the wounded from the jail. An immediate ceasefire was in effect. To everyone’s surprise, the ambulance drove off with Cantrell and Mansfield who had slipped out, while leaving their men behind.

White’s top priority now was to secure the ballot boxes. Rumors of reinforcements were circulating among the GIs 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 gathered, and several of Mansfield’s men were badly beaten, including Wise who had shot Tom Gillespie earlier that day. Riots ensued, causing material damage all over the town. The mob mainly targeted police cars and the deputies’ private vehicles.

McMinn County Courthouse in Athens, Tennessee, located in the Southeastern United States. This courthouse was built in 1966. Brian Stansberry – CC-BY SA 3.0
McMinn County Courthouse in Athens, Tennessee, located in the Southeastern United States. This courthouse was built in 1966. Brian Stansberry – CC-BY SA 3.0

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

The event initiated a statewide movement against corrupt politicians installed all across Tennessee and related, in one way or another, to Edward Hull Crump. Even though the GI Local Government tried to deal with the corruption, the fight eventually got the better of them.

In an open letter signed by several members of the party the disappointment in the system is palpable:

“We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making.”

The GI Government collapsed in 1947 and was replaced with a clique similar to the one they had been fighting against.

 
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