Americans enjoy a tradition of changing their government leaders every few years. As long as we have our right to vote, we can peaceably affect our government at all levels. In 1946, however, the citizens of Athens, Tennessee were denied their right to a fair local election, and a violent revolution quickly erupted.
Before World War II, Athens was a quiet farming town of barely more than 7,000 inhabitants. When the war started, about ten percent of the population enlisted and went to fight. The town changed dramatically while the soldiers were away; a Democratic political machine took over much of Tennessee, including Athens.
Athens was the county seat of McMinn County, which elected a notoriously evil sheriff named Paul Cantrell. Cantrell and his deputies would receive a fee from the county for every person they arrested, so they would spend all their time arresting people, charging them for petty misdemeanors, and then release them. They could arrest over 100 people in one weekend and make quite a profit. Furthermore, they would take bribes from illegal businesses to leave them alone, so Athens was filled with gambling and prostitution. “When the GIs come back,” people were saying, “things will be different.”
Eventually the veterans did come back, and they would not tolerate being arrested to line a deputy’s pocket. Fights between deputies and veterans were frequent, and at least one veteran was killed. At last the veterans decided to put a peaceful end to it through an upcoming election. They formed their own political party and selected candidates for every position on the ballot, including sheriff. By this time Cantrell had moved to state senate, and his friend Pat Mansfield, the former state senator, had become sheriff. In this election of 1946, Mansfield was running once again for state senate, and Cantrell was running for his old position as McMinn County Sheriff.
When Election Day came, Sheriff Mansfield filled Athens with two hundred armed deputies from outside the county, in order to make sure the election was “fair”. The veterans also placed two poll-watchers at every precinct. One poll watcher, Bob Hairell, observed several illegal activities done by Minus Wilburn, a poll worker in Athens. All day long Wilburn had allowed minors to vote and had handed cash to adult voters. At 3: 45 p.m., when Hairell saw Wilburn handing a ballot to an unregistered voter, he stopped him by grabbing his wrist. Wilburn struck Hairell with a blackjack and kicked his face as he fell. He then closed the precinct, arrested the poll watchers, and marched to the jail with the ballot box.
Just a few minutes earlier in another precinct, an elderly black farmer named Tom Gillespie was denied the right to vote because a deputy had looked over his ballot and saw that he had voted the “wrong way”. Gillespie was told that he was voting in the wrong precinct. “This is where I always vote,” he protested. Windy Wise, the deputy, struck Gillespie with his brass knuckles. When Gillespie tried to flee, Wise shot him in the back with a .45. Several other deputies picked up the wounded man and took him to the hospital. The polling place was immediately closed.
By this time, a mob had formed in the street, and many veterans fetched their guns and formed a militia. When Chief Deputy Boe Dunn heard that they were organizing, he sent seven deputies, a few at a time, to arrest as many of them as they could identify. Each time the deputies were disarmed and taken prisoner by the veterans. Some of the veterans wanted to kill the captives, but most of them refused. Instead they took them outside the town, whipped them, and tied them to trees.
All the polling places were closed by four o’clock, and the ballots were taken to the jail to be
counted secretly. The veterans, however, were not about to let them steal the election. Several of them broke into the National Guard armory and borrowed several rifles and as much ammunition as they could carry, and armed the veterans who did not already have guns. As darkness fell, Mansfield, Cantrell, and about fifty deputies confidently began counting ballots inside the jail, while an army of veterans crept in the shadows outside toward the brick building.
The veterans called to the men in the jail, telling them to bring out the ballot boxes to be
counted fairly in the street, or they would fire. There are differing reports as to who fired first, but soon both sides were pelting the other with bullets. Two deputies who were outside the jail were shot and wounded. The deputies did not continue firing very long, but the veterans continued shooting for hours, stopping at intervals to allow the enemy to surrender. At 11: 00 Mansfield threatened to kill three hostages in the jail if the veterans did not stop shooting, but his threat was ignored.
Around midnight rumors began circulating that the National Guard had been mobilized and was on its way. This was not true, but the veterans cut the telephone lines to the jail as a precaution. They knew that they would be in serious trouble if the National Guard arrived, and the rumors made them eager to end the battle quickly.
At about 3: 00 a.m., one of the veterans obtained access to dynamite. They began bundling
sticks of dynamite together, lighting them, and throwing them at the jail. Mansfield’s car and Boe Dunn’s car were both demolished, and the jailhouse porch was blown to bits. Debris was scattered for miles. At last, the terrified deputies staggered out of the building into the smoky street and surrendered the ballot boxes.
The veterans had won the battle, but the angry mob of townspeople had not yet finished its
violent course. When Windy Wise, the man who shot Tom Gillespie, stepped out of the jail, the people rushed him and beat him savagely before his friends pulled him back into the building. Minus Wilburn received a cut on his throat, and another deputy was shot in the jaw. The veterans helped to put an end to the riot, and locked up their prisoners in the jail. Interestingly, Mansfield and Cantrell were nowhere to be found. Sometime during the course of the battle, they had escaped from the town in an ambulance that the veterans had assumed was there to help the wounded.
The ballots were counted fairly in the street, and the veterans won by a 2: 1 ratio. As the sun appeared on the eastern horizon, people finally returned to their homes in peace. For weeks following the battle, armed veterans still patrolled the streets with machine guns for fear that their enemies would return with another army. Cantrell, however, never returned to Athens; Mansfield came back secretly to resign his position on the election commission, then left. Neither of them ever tried his hand again at politics.
Miraculously, no one was killed in the battle that night. Furthermore, no one on either side faced any criminal charges except the trigger-happy deputy, Windy Wise. Most of the warriors and witnesses of the battle have passed away, but there are still a few citizens of Athens who remember shooting hundreds of rounds in defense of liberty on August 1-2, 1946.
Our right to choose our leaders in a fair election is the greatest advantage we have as a people over our government. When that right is removed from us, we have no other peaceable means to secure our liberties. The men of Athens proved that we, the people, can and must control our government. If we can do it peaceably, then all is well; but if not, then may God give us courage.