Battle of Athens: The Forgotten History of the Tennessee Rebellion Against Local Government
Battle of Athens: The Forgotten History of the Tennessee Rebellion Against Local Government by Sam Jacobs for Ammo.com
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.