Citizens of McMinn County had long been concerned about political corruption and possible election fraud. The U.S. Department of Justice had investigated allegations of electoral fraud in 1940, 1942, and 1944, but had not taken action. Paul Cantrell was elected sheriff in the 1936, 1938, and 1940 elections, and was elected to the state senate in 1942 and 1944, while his former deputy, Pat Mansfield, was elected sheriff.
The sheriff and his deputies worked under a fee system whereby they received money for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more arrests, the more money they made. Buses passing through the county were often pulled over and the passengers were randomly ticketed for drunkenness, whether guilty or not.
Veteran Bill White was quoted saying”There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens; we were pretty wild; we started having trouble with the law enforcement at that time because they started making a habit of picking up GIs and fining them heavily for most anything—they were kind of making a racket out of it. After long hard years of service—most of us were hard-core veterans of World War II—we were used to drinking our liquor and our beer without being molested. When these things happened, the GIs got madder—the more GIs they arrested, the more they beat up, the madder we got …”
In the August 1946 election, Paul Cantrell was once again a candidate for sheriff, while Pat Mansfield sought the state senate seat. After World War II ended, some 3,000 military veterans (constituting about 10 percent of the county population) had returned to McMinn County. Some of the returning veterans resolved to challenge Cantrell’s political control by fielding their own nonpartisan candidates and working for a fraud-free election. They called themselves the GI Non-Partisan League.
The election was held on 1 August. To intimidate voters, Mansfield brought in some 200 armed “deputies”. GI poll-watchers were beaten almost at once. At about 3 p.m., Tom Gillespie, an African-American voter, was told by a Sheriff’s deputy, “‘Nigger, you can’t vote here today!!’”. Despite being beaten, Gillespie persisted; the enraged deputy shot him. The gunshot drew a crowd. Rumors spread that Gillespie had been “shot in the back”; he later recovered. (C. Stephen Byrum, The Battle of Athens; Paidia Productions, Chattanooga TN, 1987; pp. 155-57). C.M. Wise (the shooter) was later sentenced to 1–3 years in prison, being the only person to face charges from the events of August 1–2, 1946
Other deputies detained ex-GI poll-watchers in a polling place, as that made the ballot count “public”. A crowd gathered. Sheriff Mansfield told his deputies to disperse the crowd. When the two ex-GIs smashed a big window and escaped, the crowd surged forward. “The deputies, with guns drawn, formed a tight half-circle around the front of the polling place. One deputy, “his gun raised high …shouted: ‘You sons-of-bitches cross this street and I’ll kill you!’” (Byrum, p. 165). Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail for counting.
Short of firearms and ammunition, the GIs scoured the county to find them. By borrowing keys to the National Guard and State Guard Armories, they got three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols, and 24 British Enfield rifles. The armories were nearly empty after the war’s end. When the men reached the jail, it was barricaded and manned by 55 deputies. The veterans demanded the ballot boxes but were refused. They then opened fire on the jail, initiating a battle that lasted several hours by some accounts, considerably less by others. In the end, the door of the jail was dynamited and breached. The barricaded deputies—some with injuries—surrendered, and the ballot boxes were recovered. During the fight at the jail, rioting had broken out in Athens, mainly targeting police cars. This continued even after the ballot boxes were recovered, but subsided by morning.
The recovered ballots certified the election of the five GI Non-Partisan League candidates. Among the reforms instituted was a change in the method of payment and a $5,000 salary cap for officials. In the initial momentum of victory, gambling houses in collusion with the Cantrell regime were raided and their operations demolished. Deputies of the prior administration resigned and were replaced. The League failed to establish itself permanently and traditional political parties soon returned to power.
McMinn A Warning By Eleanor Roosevelt
New York, Monday — After any war, the use of force throughout the world is almost taken for granted. Men involved in the war have been trained to use force, and they have discovered that, when you want something, you can take it. The return to peacetime methods governed by law and persuasion is usually difficult.
We in the U.S.A., who have long boasted that, in our political life, freedom in the use of the secret ballot made it possible for us to register the will of the people without the use of force, have had a rude awakening as we read of conditions in McMinn County, Tennessee, which brought about the use of force in the recent primary. If a political machine does not allow the people free expression, then freedom-loving people lose their faith in the machinery under which their government functions.
In this particular case, a group of young veterans organized to oust the local machine and elect their own slate in the primary. We may deplore the use of force but we must also recognize the lesson which this incident points for us all. When the majority of the people know what they want, they will obtain it.
Any local, state or national government, or any political machine, in order to live, must give the people assurance that they can express their will freely and that their votes will be counted. The most powerful machine cannot exist without the support of the people. Political bosses and political machinery can be good, but the minute they cease to express the will of the people, their days are numbered.
This is a lesson which wise political leaders learn young, and you can be pretty sure that, when a boss stays in power, he gives the majority
of the people what they think they want. If he is bad and indulges in practices which are dishonest, or if he acts for his own interests
alone, the people are unwilling to condone these practices.
When the people decide that conditions in their town, county, state or country must change, they will change them. If the leadership has been
wise, they will be able to do it peacefully through a secret ballot which is honestly counted, but if the leader has become inflated and too sure of his own importance, he may bring about the kind of action which was taken in Tennessee.
If we want to continue to be a mature people who, at home and abroad, settle our difficulties peacefully and not through the use of force,
then we will take to heart this lesson and we will jealously guard our rights. What goes on before an election, the threats or persuasion by political leaders, may be bad but it cannot prevent the people from really registering their will if they wish to.
The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.