Remember the Battle of Athens!

The struggle between populism and establishment cronyism did not begin with Donald Trump. Military veterans in East Tennessee fought back in 1946, and won.

This essay originally appeared in the Daily Times on April 6, 2023 (here).

I preface this column with a caveat: I am not advocating insurrection, violence, or civil disobedience. Rather, a historical event in East Tennessee that occurred shortly after the end of WWII is worth remembering for the same reason that the Boston Tea Party and the heroic (but unsuccessful) defense of the Alamo are noteworthy—as timeless examples of courage, valor, and the quest for honest self-government. In 1946, in the city of Athens (that’s McMinn County, not Greece), a group of combat-hardened WWII veterans who had just returned to civilian life took on a corrupt political machine to preserve their voting rights, and won. It is an inspiring tale.

In 1936, a powerful Democratic political machine based in Memphis, led by E.H. “Boss” Crump, had extended its reach to East Tennessee with the election of a crooked sheriff in McMinn County, Paul Cantrell, who began a dynasty that lasted a decade. Cantrell was aligned with FDR, and during the Depression rode FDR’s New Deal coattails to bring Democrat control to the once-Republican McMinn County. Cantrell and his deputies, paid based on the number of arrests they made (no matter how phony), enriched themselves with fines indiscriminately assessed against travelers, tourists, and even citizens for made-up crimes. Imagine a sleazy “speed trap” on a vast scale.

In addition, Cantrell and his successor presided over massive voter fraud, rigged elections, and a network of graft that enabled local political figures to benefit from gambling, bootlegging, brothels, and other illegal activity. It is hard to believe, but McMinn County was as lawless as a banana republic.

During WWII, when most young men from McMinn County were fighting overseas, the abuses escalated. Ex-convicts and thugs were appointed as deputies, the local political machine controlled the local newspaper and schools, and citizens were terrorized with impunity. Two local servicemen visiting the area on leave were shot and killed by Cantrell supporters. Returning GIs, who had heard rumors of Cantrell’s tyrannical rule, were resolved to restore integrity to local government—to take back the community they had been defending overseas.

The Cantrell machine was so drunk with power that it thought it could bully and intimidate the thousands of seasoned soldiers who had just vanquished Hitler and Tojo. This proved to be an epic miscalculation.

Cantrell’s greedy deputies regularly arrested the returning GIs on trumped-up charges to fleece them of their “mustering out” pay, targeting bars frequented by veterans. The GIs seethed. As the August 1946 election approached, the veterans—accounting for about 10 percent of the county’s population–realized that they had to organize in order to regain control of local government. Meeting in secret, the veterans formed a GI Non-Partisan League and selected a bipartisan slate of candidates to run for local offices, including Knox Henry, a decorated veteran of the North African Campaign, to oppose the corrupt sheriff.

The incumbents, however, were not going to relinquish power without a fight–which the GIs were ready and willing to provide. On Election Day, August 1, “voters lined up early in the largest turnout in local history,” according to one account. Citizens wanted change. The sheriff brought in hundreds of armed deputies—many from out of town—to rig the balloting. The regime refused to show that ballot boxes were empty before voting commenced, some voters were turned away at the polls, and protesters were beaten, arrested, and even shot. The veterans decided drastic action was necessary. Already armed with handguns, they broke into the local National Guard armory to obtain additional weapons, including submachine guns, and ammo.

The GI-backed candidates were leading three-to-one when the polls closed, but the sheriff took the ballot boxes to the jail (along with about 50 deputies) and refused to let observers watch the votes be counted. The GIs, sure that the sheriff would fabricate the election results to retain power, demanded entrance. A showdown—a battle, actually—ensued. Between several hundred and 2,000 veterans (accounts vary) laid siege to the jail, using military tactics they had honed fighting the enemy in WWII.  For hours, the two sides exchanged fire—rifle, shotgun, and machine guns. The sheriff’s forces, holed up in the jail, refused to accede to demands that the ballot-counting be supervised.

At 2:30 a.m., the GIs escalated the siege with dynamite. By 3:30 a.m., the sheriff surrendered. “The jail’s defenders staggered from their ruined stronghold and handed the ballot boxes over to the veterans,” according to one account. The GIs had prevailed, in both the armed conflict and the election. Knox Henry was the new sheriff. The corrupt Crump/Cantrell machine was broken.

The Battle of Athens is memorialized in a Tennessee Historical Commission plaque posted in downtown Athens. 

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