Battle of Athens: The Forgotten History of the Tennessee Rebellion Against Local Government
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The fight for civil rights in America is not limited to black Americans. Nor is the American Revolution limited to the 1700s. Case in point: The Battle of Athens. This was a pitched physical confrontation lasting two days in 1946, but with roots stretching back into the 1930s. It is part of an overall pan-racial resistance to anti-democratic government forms throughout the United States – and an oft-forgotten moment in American history.
A corrupt political machine run by E.H. Crump was centered in Memphis, but had influence throughout the entire state of Tennessee. This extensive influence was used to alter the election laws and charters of cities and counties to make the electoral process more favorable to Crump and his men. Sheriffs and their deputies were paid on a fee system, whereby they received more money the more people they incarcerated -- with predictable results. Travelers and tourists were hit hardest, with buses traveling through Crump-controlled areas pulled over and (the entire bus) ticketed for drunkenness.
This was felt particularly sharply in McMinn County, which was historically Republican. It has been alleged that the basis of Crump’s political power was delivering this Republican stronghold to Democrat President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election. The Justice Department investigated election fraud there in 1940, 1942 and 1944, but declined to take action. The poll tax and politicized ballot counting were the most common methods of fraud, as well as that old standby of having dead people cast ballots.
The advent of World War II made matters worse. Most of McMinn County’s young men were off fighting the war. This meant that the county began scraping the bottom of the barrel when it came to appointing lawmen. Ex-cons were not considered unworthy and many were hired to help the county meet its needs. Gambling and bootlegging were permitted for those politically connected individuals within the county. To make matters worse, the machine was firmly in control of the newspapers and schools, and was the most gainful employment in the county.
The GI Non-Partisan League
Two servicemen on leave in the county were shot by allies of Crump’s machine. Servicemen from the county received news of this while still abroad and were anxious to get home and do something about it. One of the servicemen who was interviewed at the time of the Battle of Athens said that he was a lot more concerned about what was happening in McMinn County than he was about what was happening overseas. Once the GIs from McMinn County were demobilized, the area was ripe for a confrontation, especially once the fee-grabbing lawmen of the area began rolling the recently discharged GIs for their muster pay.
Upon their return to the United States, several resolved to retake the county at the ballot box. Fully 10 percent of the county’s electorate was made up of returning GIs. The reform candidates ran on a non-partisan slate whose primary goals were the democratization and reform of McMinn County – and the expulsion of the Crump Machine for good.
Somewhat amusingly, one of the impetuses for the mini-revolution was the enforcement of laws against public drunkenness. The GIs were often from hardcore infantry units and were used to being able to drink what they wanted when they wanted, without being pestered by the authorities. Once the local authorities started shaking down returning GIs at honky tonks in the area, the die had been cast.
The opposition was called the GI Non-Partisan League, which drafted its slate of candidates based on the demographics of the area. Democratic areas had Democratic candidates while Republican areas had Republican ones – thus it was truly a patriotic and democratic movement, not a partisan one. Local businessmen made large donations to ensure that the campaign was well funded. The League dispelled fears that votes wouldn’t be counted, with the slogan: “Your Vote Will Be Counted As Cast.”
Tensions rose as the machine thugs attacked the returning GIs, who organized a self-defense wing of their League. The self-defense elements totalled 30 men, mostly pulled from poor families and from men who had done frontline fighting during the war. Crump’s men responded by hiring 200 deputies, many from outside of the county (or even out of state) at a rate of $50 per day – equivalent to nearly $650 per day in 2018 dollars. There were normally only 15 patrolmen used on election day for the entire district.
Tension at the Polls
Things came to a head at around 3:00 in the afternoon on August 1st, when patrolman C.M. “Cindy” Wise attempted to prevent an elderly black farmer named Tom Gillespie from casting his ballot. Gillespie and a GI poll watcher objected. Gillespie was met first with racial slurs and then with a set of brass knuckles to the face. He dropped his ballot and ran away, prompting Wise to shoot him in the back.
Wise later became the only man prosecuted for the events of the Battle of Athens, sentenced to one to three years in prison.
The GIs all gathered at a local store they had been using as a headquarters. They contacted the governor and the attorney general of Tennessee to request back-up for the purpose of ensuring a legal election, but were met with silence. They learned that the Crump Machine was dispatching armed guards to all polling stations. It was then that they decided to arm themselves for what was sure to be a violent confrontation. They broke into the local National Guard armory and looted weapons.
The sheriff showed up at the polling station where Gillespie had been shot, ordered it closed and took two GI poll watchers hostage. The GIs responded by taking seven deputies hostage, tying them up, taking them out into the woods, and beating them. All polling stations were closed and ballots were taken to the local jail. It was then that the GIs decided that they needed to decisively take the jail before reinforcements could arrive the next day.
Fortunately, having just returned from the war, the GIs were well versed in military tactics, while the deputies were not. The GIs laid siege to the prison, with a standing order that anyone who tried to flee without their weapon was allowed to leave unmolested. One escapee tried to call in reinforcements from an allied boss the next county over. His request was refused.
Dynamite bombs were lobbed at the prison, more for the psychological impact of hitting cars, which then exploded and turned over in the air. Eventually the jail was breached from the roof using dynamite. The deputies inside surrendered themselves – as well as the ballot boxes.
After the Battle
The battle was over by 3:30 in the morning. There were some minor acts of retribution, but overall there was an air of celebration over the area, the likes of which hadn’t been seen in ages. Over 400 people in a courtroom elected an ad hoc committee to preserve law and order in the area headed by a Methodist minister. The Secretary of the County Election Commission communicated that he would indeed certify the election in favor of the GI slate.
The new sheriff-elect, Knox Henry, was in protective custody in the Sweetwater, Tennessee jail. He had been informed that the Crump Machine intended to murder him.
The aftermath of the Battle of Athens was sweeping reform. Deputies were now to be paid a salary and all county salaries were to be capped at $5,000 – though the fee basis did continue for another four years before finally being phased out. The gambling houses that served to fund the Crump Machine’s allies in the area were raided and disbanded.
This movement spread to other parts of the state as well. Governor Jim McCord countered it by directing the Young Democrat Clubs to recruit ex-GIs for membership. There was some ambition to start a new national party, however, United States Marine Corps General Evans Carlson urged veterans to work within the existing political parties.
The GI regime did not last long. Indeed, many of them felt like they had abolished one machine only to erect another in its place. A common concern at the time was that returning GIs would bring the war home with them, engaging in political violence against the American government. The Battle of Athens did little to dispel their fears.
While Tennessee largely returned to business as usual over the next few years, the Battle of Athens has been mythologized several times in film, television and books.
Every president of the United States, from 1953 to 1993, was a World War II veteran.