Fed up with the crooked local machine, GIs took to the streets with rifles and ran them out of town.
Deputy C.M. Wise had a problem. He was about to lose his job, and he had to watch it happen. Wise had been posted at the city waterworks office on North Madison Street in Athens, Tennessee, since before nine a.m. All morning and into the humid afternoon of August 1, 1946, “Windy” Wise watched folks from across the county cast their ballots with hard looks that spelled the end of an era for Windy, along with his fellow deputies, Sheriff Pat Mansfield, and State Senator Paul Cantrell. Wise and the others had allegedly pilfered money from the citizens of McMinn County for more than a decade. They had also allegedly murdered two GIs during the war. But now the town had finally had enough. A group of veterans fresh from World War II were making a play for control of McMinn County and they were winning. The glares made Windy scared and angry. Someone needed to do something, he thought. Now.
Tom Gillespie, a black farmer, stepped inside the waterworks to cast his vote. He came in strong and confident. He worked for a beloved Quaker family, and like them, Gillespie was a proud and peaceful man. He produced his poll tax receipt to the election officials and received a ballot. As he stepped up to cast his vote the sweat-soaked Windy blocked his path with a wild look in his eyes, like an animal cornered by its own hubris.
“You can’t vote,” Windy said.
“He can, too!” said a former GI serving as poll watcher. He was one of dozens scattered across the county to ensure the political machine didn’t steal the election. Everything in the room seemed to cease motion. The room was hot and stuffy. After a moment, Gillespie spoke. “Why’s that, Mr. Wise?” he asked.
Windy was a thug, a bully; to back down would be tantamount to defeat. All he knew was to plow forward.
“Nigger, you can’t vote here today!” he bellowed, and in a flare of rage he bared a pair of brass knuckles and smashed his fist into the black voter. Tom Gillespie turned and fled, spurred along with a hard shove.
But Gillespie was determined to vote. It was his right, and no corrupt, racist deputy was going to stop him. He collected himself, opened the door to the precinct, and walked back into the waterworks. He leaned against a wall with his arms folded defiantly and glared. When Windy saw him he flew into a rage.
“Damn you! I told that you were not voting in this damn precinct today,” he bellowed. Then he jerked his pistol from its holster and fired a bullet into Tom Gillespie.
The Battle of Athens had begun.
* * *
Before the battle, there was the parade. On a cool Saturday in November 1945, ten months before Windy Wise shot Tom Gillespie for participating in democracy, the folks of McMinn County celebrated the end of a world war against fascism. Some 3,000 young men, ten percent of the county, had enlisted in the armed forces and fought across Europe and the Pacific, participating in heavy combat in places like Guadalcanal and Normandy. More than 100 had been killed. But the war was over. “Now it was time to celebrate in McMinn County,” wrote University of Tennessee professor of history C. Stephen Byrum. “The ‘boys’ were back!” They had won the war for McMinn County, for Tennessee, and for the United States. They were heroes. Flags snapped and shuddered in the autumn wind as the crowd cheered with an uncommon roar.
But the mood amongst some of the GIs as they marched down North Jackson Street was somewhat less than jovial. Trouble had long been brewing at home. While they battled the Nazis and the Japanese they had received word from across the county of malfeasance and outright criminal behavior by the sheriff’s deputies.
Sherriff Mansfield, a transplant from Georgia, had come into the office on the coattails of newly elected State Senator Paul Cantrell. Mansfield quickly turned the county into a veritable cash register for himself and the deputies. In a later interview, Marine veteran and Athens native Bill White said, “Mansfield had complete control of everything — schools and everything else. You couldn’t even get hired as a schoolteacher without their okay, or any other job.” There were endless instances of shakedowns and fee grabbing — a policing policy whereby deputies were paid solely by arrest. The more arrests they made, the more money they earned.
All this came to a low boil during the war when two service members on leave were killed by deputies while at a pair of nearby roadhouses, according to a 1946 article by Theodore H. White in Harper’s. While McMinn County GIs were fighting to preserve democracy, they were hearing about their friends and neighbors — even fellow GIs — getting shaken down, beaten, and murdered by “draft dodgers,” as one veteran called them. In the same article, veteran Ralph Duggan explained he “thought a lot more about McMinn County than he did about the Japs. If democracy was good enough to put on the Germans and the Japs, it was good enough for McMinn County, too!”
The problems in the county only compounded once the GIs returned home flush with savings. “When I got off the bus there was four deputies standing there flipping over all the service members,” remembered Bill White. “A lot of boys getting discharged were getting the mustering out pay. Well, deputies running around four or five at a time grabbing up every GI they could find and trying to get that money off of them… They were kind of making a racket out of it. When these things happened, the GIs got madder — the more GIs they arrested, the more they beat up, the madder we got.”
When the veterans organized the GI Non-Partisan League in early 1946 to oust Mansfield and his deputized goons, they weren’t just fighting corrupt local politicians existing in a state-wide political vacuum. The corruption in McMinn County was, at least in shades, part-and-parcel for the state, which was under the influence of a political machine run by old-school Democratic boss E.H. “Boss” Crump. The veterans had an uphill battle. In an early meeting with veterans, Otto Kennedy, a Republican adviser to the fledgling party, made it plain that the establishment party would cook the books unless they deployed poll watchers on Election Day. Kennedy recommended 50 armed men placed at each voting precinct. Yet the veterans were reluctant to surround polling precincts with weapons.
According to White, other veterans in the room groaned and deflected.
“You better do it or you’re wasting your time,” White replied. After a moment, fellow veteran and campaign manager Jim Buttrum stood up from his seat and spoke calmly, “Well Bill, I’ll recommend you to be the GI leader. Organize to keep them from taking the election.”
“That was right down my alley,” White explained years later. “I liked that. So I got out and started organizing with a bunch of GIs. I learned that you get the poor boys out of poor families, and the ones that was frontline warriors that’s done fighting and didn’t care to bust a cap on you. So that’s what I picked. I had 30 men and… I took what mustering out pay I got and bought pistols.”
* * *
The county was up early on Election Day, August 1, 1946. It was a Thursday. As early as 7:30 a.m., the streets around the polling precincts all across McMinn County were packed. Tensions between the deputies and the GIs were high. Veterans patrolled the polling stations with guns strapped to their waists. The GIs had learned from old party members all the tricks used to cook the vote. One method involved killing the power to the polling station and swapping rigged ballot boxes in the darkness. Another involved simply miscounting the votes — one opposition vote counted for a half-dozen or so incumbent votes, according to Byrum. Once the polls opened, the GIs would monitor them to make sure Mansfield’s boys didn’t play any games.
The problems began almost immediately. When a GI poll watcher asked that a ballot box be opened to verify it as empty, he was promptly arrested. In Etowah, on the east side of the county, a GI election judge was tossed out of a precinct and hauled off by police when he demanded a ballot box be inspected. According to Byrum, voters David and Thelma Miller were told by Democratic representatives not to vote, because “we voted for you this morning.”
No matter who won, people on both sides would have to live together once the election was over. They’d see each other at church, out in the neighborhood. Folks on each side wondered about the repercussions of losing, whether their children would be ostracized or whether they’d face violence. This wasn’t an election simply to see who controlled the municipal structures of government. This was an election that would define the social landscape of a rural county in a region baked with grudges and feuds that were as old as the hills. The old guard felt change in the air — change they could not stop. That’s what drove “Windy” Wise to shoot Tom Gillespie.
After Gillespie had been carted away, Pat Mansfield motored from the county jail with a carload of deputies and sealed off the waterworks. Inside, the vote counting had begun. The deputies pushed out the GI poll watchers. The counters, with deputies lording over them, tallied five Democratic votes for every one non-partisan vote. Once finished, the deputies absconded with the boxes to what they presumed was a safe place to dispose of the true ballots — the county jail.
After word went out that the count had been corrupted, Athens boiled into a rage. “They’ve stolen our election,” was the cry that rang out, and the veterans went into action. Byrum recalled one young man stated, “I served in the Army, but I ain’t never seen nothing like this. I got a gun at home and if I have to walk six miles to get it and come back, I’m goin’.” Hundreds of veterans, far more than just the armed poll watchers enlisted by Bill White, began appearing with old shotguns and pistols. For those who showed up unarmed, White and his cadre of veterans raided the nearby National Guard armory for rifles.
Bill White was a rugged brawler. He loved to fight. He had been through some of the toughest campaigns in the early part of the Pacific campaign. He led 60 armed veterans near the campus of Tennessee Wesleyan College, not far from the jail, where he split them into two groups, which took up positions that largely surrounded the jail. But they left the rear uncovered.
“We’ve come for the ballot boxes! Give up the ballot boxes!” a veteran yelled out, according to Byrum.
“Are you the law in McMinn County?” a deputy yelled from inside the jail.
A voice rang out from amongst the guns aimed at the jail: “There ain’t no damn law in McMinn County!”
When veterans Harold Powers and Edgar Miller tried to cross the street, a deputy fired a shotgun from inside the jail, wounding them in the neck and shoulder. A pistol shot and a burst from a submachine gun followed it.
Byrum speculates the shot might have been designed not to wound, but simply to scare off the crowd of veterans. If so, it failed. The veterans opened fire, which was returned by the deputies. For a good 30 minutes both sides snapped at each other, then the fire settled into pace according to mood and whim — sometimes rising, other times falling. Windows were shot out; streetlights, shingles, pebbles and whole chunks of masonry and brick were chipped from the thick jail walls. According to Byrum, a radio used to monitor the battle four blocks away was shot out by a stray bullet. Occasionally a Molotov cocktail sailed out from the veterans’ side and doused the streets in fire, but all they managed to do was torch a few parked cars.
The fighting continued off-and-on for the rest of the evening and into the early morning, with both sides refusing to budge. The veterans had a great position and the spiritual weight of the town in their corner. Mansfield and his deputies had the jail as a fortress and the weighty preponderance and presumption of law and order in theirs. Who would break first was simply a matter of time and logistics, unless some convening force intervened.
The answer came in the form of nitroglycerin.
Around 1:30 a.m, a few veterans using a loudspeaker mounted on a nearby radio station put a demand to the deputies.
“Come out with your hands up or we will use dynamite!”
No one is sure where the veterans found the dynamite. Byrum suggested it came from a nearby hardware store, but other sources claim that men from another county brought it after hearing reports of the fighting on the radio. It’s agreed that it was thrown from a Jeep speeding down White Street. The first stick rolled under a nearby car, flipping it upside down with the explosion. The second blew up in the grass. The third time, however, men taped together a few sticks of dynamite into one large charge. This is where the story splits. According to Byrum, the dynamite was tossed from the Jeep like the first time. Bill White, however, said, “I crawled up and put a charge on the jailhouse porch. Crawled back behind the building there and it went off and blew the porch up. I had this other big charge so I went up and laid it right up against the jail. When it went off it jarred that jail. Woo!”
Whatever the case, white flags and handkerchiefs began to poke out the jailhouse windows followed by cries of “We give up!” and “Stop firing and we’ll come out!” After some quick words, the disheveled deputies filed from the battered jail into the dark streets with their pistols dancing from their fingertips.
The Battle of Athens had ended.
* * *
The political situation in McMinn County quieted down once the deputies surrendered and the ballots could be counted without interference. By August 5, the vote tally showed the GI candidate for sheriff, a veteran named Knox Henry, along with their candidates for trustee, circuit court clerk, and register of deeds, had all won handily. Later that day, Paul Cantrell conceded the election. A few days later Mansfield, under pressure from Governor Jim McCord, resigned as sheriff. He left McMinn County and never returned. Meanwhile, the veterans took control of the county in the sudden absence of Mansfield’s deputies, who were either jailed or run off into hiding.
In the end, according to a New York Times article, the veterans found that armed insurrection simply wasn’t worth it. The veterans, for all their good intentions, had violated something that had been a tenant of American politics since the Whiskey Rebellion: in a democracy, battles are to be fought with votes, not guns. Many of them could have been arrested and tried under an assortment of federal charges, even if they were in the right. Yet no charges were ever brought down on any veteran or organizer. Only Deputy C.M. “Windy” Wise was ever convicted of a crime. He was sentenced to a stunningly light one- to three-year prison stretch for shooting Tom Gillespie, who made a full recovery.
Some GIs wanted blood, revenge for old wrongs, scores settled in old South ways — eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth. Bill White explained further that after the battle, “they put me in as a deputy. They wanted me to control the GIs. And I did. I had 16 fights in one weekend. Fighting GIs, keeping them from shooting them people’s houses and beating up people. My fists got so sore I couldn’t stick them in my pocket.”
White stated that the profit-based policing, which launched so much grief prior to the election, remained in play for another four years. Aside from a wave of initial press reporting and a few minor copycats, the Battle of Athens was inevitably buried in the soil of the town and pressed into lore. Over the next few months, the GI Non-Partisan League squandered its gains with infighting. The old party loyalties in the county resurfaced as if hard-wired into the psyche of the region. “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss,” as Pete Townsend once sang.
According to a New York Times article from early 1947, disillusioned with the direction of the party, the GI Non-Partisan League published an open letter that announced its end, stating “We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making.”