Election season 2020 in Tennessee was a microcosm of the nation's problems: social media videos of armed "poll watchers" in Knoxville, massive protests led by teens in Nashville. But voters' memories are short, and they may have forgotten that in at least one rural Tennessee town, violence over a contested election is nothing new.
In August of 1946, citizens of Athens, Tennessee, were expecting record voter turnout for local county elections as a tense summer came to a close. On Aug. 1, the Daily Post Athenian reported an anticipated 12,000 voters would make their way to the polls, calling the election "a hot one" after opposing tickets had "charges and counter-charges hurled" at one another.
The reporters certainly couldn't have predicted that a siege, hostage situation and gunfire exchange would explode in their hometown later that day and long into the night, nor could they have predicted what would later be called the Battle of Athens. But a summer of disgruntled World War II veterans opposing the local sheriff had already created a stressful election season.
After peace was declared in WWII, Athens veterans returned home from fighting in Europe only to find a corrupt, scandalous sheriff and county government.
Today's McMinn County sheriff, Joe Guy, called his 1946 predecessor, Pat Mansfield, "heavy-handed," and says the outdated county government system wasn't working anymore. Athens elected officials could hold multiple offices at once, causing conflicts of interest.
Sheriff Mansfield wasn't even from Athens. He was an outsider from Georgia, part of the Democratic party machine. Guy says vets with money to burn were easy targets for arrest, as they'd visit local bars for drinks. Mansfield's deputies might arrest a vet and "roll him for his money," according to Guy, a historian who also leads tours in downtown Athens. Guy says other accusations included voter intimidation and retaliation if a family member voted against the party, which vets might learn of in a letter while fighting overseas.
"These guys were young men fighting in Europe and the Pacific, fighting for their country. And yet [if] your dad or uncle voted the wrong way, the barn was burned," Guy says. "They were very idealistic and they pitted themselves against these older men who had been in power in the political machine."
The GIs established a nonpartisan party and in 1946 challenged every single office in the county. Election Day, however, didn't go as planned, and the final straw involved a racial attack against a Black voter.
Deputy Windy Wise assaulted Tom Gillespie, a man Politico referred to in previous news coverage "as the kind of a man as you could find in the Friendly City."
Guy says Gillespie was a well-liked street vendor, and although Wise pushed Gillespie down and hurled racial slurs at him, Gillespie calmly got back into line to vote, staking his claim as grandson to slaves who never got the right. In return, Wise shot him. Citizens carried a bloodied Gillespie to the hospital, and GI poll watchers who had arrived to ensure a fair election sprung into action. Although initially told they weren't allowed to leave and briefly held hostage, they managed to escape by breaking a window, and according to Guy, with Wise hot on their tail.
The veterans formed a group and converged across from the county jail where ballots were being counted just before dark. They were armed, ready to protect election results at nearly any cost. When they yelled out that deputies could leave so long as they stopped stuffing ballot boxes and didn't take any with them, they were told to "come and get them."
"You had this pretty intense gun battle, probably around 9:30 or 10 p.m.," Guy says. "But the deputies in the jail, they knew those guys on the hill, the GIs, they could stay out there all night if they needed to."
Stay they did. Intermittent gunfire exchanges left no one seriously injured, although other citizens would later attack the remaining deputies after their eventual surrender, even cutting one man's throat. Sheriff Mansfield escaped the jail; Guy says he fled to Georgia and never returned. According to Guy, the GI party was victorious, defeating Sheriff Mansfield with their own candidate.
The battle made local and national headlines. On August 3, 1946, The Tennessean emblazoned its front page with the headline, "GIs Oust McMinn Tyrant Rule." The accompanying photograph depicted a violent scene, with overturned cars in downtown streets and large crowds milling about in the aftermath. By Sept. 10, constant headlines seemed to greatly affect Athens citizens.
A column in the Daily Post Athenian read: "It seems every time an act takes place in this county anymore it is either put in headlines or headlights. Memorable history is being written here now. It is no time for malice [or] revenge"
Much happened between Aug. 1 and Sept. 10, and headlines about resignations and ousters would continue for weeks. Guy says that after the battle every single elected official resigned, and for three days, Athens operated under state jurisdiction.
Eventually, the GIs would help reform the entire system, instituting the county council form of government still used in McMinn County today. They also started the Good Government League, which according to the online Tennessee Encyclopedia had a "few successes in its efforts to eradicate the vice, corruption, and arbitrary rule of machine government."
A Sept. 4 Daily Post Athenian ad called for citizens to join the league and help accomplish goals like studying local politics and officials, making sure the public was informed and promoting nonpartisan solutions. League dues were $1.
Guy says one of the most memorable takeaways about the Battle of Athens is what came after. He likened it to a "family fight," and says many of the veterans and local officials were family members or went to church together. After the battle, some even went into business together, like breeding prize bird dogs. Guy says it took nearly 60 years for the city to start talking about what happened, even though the guns were laid aside and divisions largely healed.
"When you fight with your family you have it out, but you don't tell everybody," Guy says. "But we moved beyond that as a community and that's what you want to see."
Guy takes a personal interest and says all elected officials should know the history of the people, and regions, they serve. And while none of the veterans or politicians involved are alive to talk about their experiences, historians like Guy preserve the events and pass them down for others to learn from. We can also read their words, as writers of the Daily Post Athenian kept informing and imploring citizens to do their part in local government and remember the eyes of the nation were watching.
We can't ask the GIs who went into business with their former enemies exactly what they said to bridge the gaps and come together, but Guy's research shows it happened. And we know the paper encouraged everyone on the path to peace. In that same September column the author tells citizens healing is important.
"Study plans being submitted investigate candidates then act. Remembering at all times that good publicity helps us all, but that we all suffer when it is bad."
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