Want to understand the Second Amendment’s purpose? Then let’s talk about the “Battle of Athens”. No, not that Athens, but Athens, Tennessee, county seat of McMinn County. It seems that for years before the Second World War, the county’s government was both corrupt and dominated by a couple of families who had juice in the state legislature and with the governor. The county’s ruling class managed – through fraud and violence – to rig elections and maintain their grip on power. Neither the state nor federal government would intervene. In short, it was something right out of Walking Tall.
After the war, returning veterans had no interest in maintaining the status quo. They had, after all, just fought a war against fascism and were well-trained to deal with home-grown dictators. In 1946, the vets organized and ran a slate of candidates against the local thugocracy. When the sheriff and his deputies tried to steal the election – using violence and intimidation to do it – the vets gathered their weapons. What followed should be a warning to our state and federal governments. Perhaps the most literary account of the battle is contained in Ralph G. Martin’s, The GI War (unfortunately out of print).
“It was like Nazi Germany here,” said thirty-seven-year-old, graying, Navy veteran Ralph Duggan. “Cantrell’s deputies were nothing but a lot of swaggering, strutting storm-troopers, drunk most of the time, beating up our citizens for the slightest reason. Know what they did? In elections, they just kicked out the poll-watchers or else they took the ballot boxes to be counted in the privacy of Cantrell’s bank. They even used guns and blackjacks, back in 1940, to prevent 400 people from voting.”
For three years, lawyer Duggan pushed the case until the Circuit Court jury brought in a guilty verdict against three Cantrell deputies. But the judge simply fined the deputies one cent each, told them to be good boys, and let them go free. The U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t rule on it, said it was a state matter. As for the State Supreme Court, everybody knew it was packed with Crump-picked men. So, legally, they were licked.
“It wasn’t really a town anymore,” declared former GI Jim Buttram. “It was a jail.”
Buttram thought about it often. Here he was, a rifleman who had fought all through Tunisia, Sicily and Normandy, getting wounded twice, fighting for a world concept of democracy, and there wasn’t even any democracy in his own hometown. It didn’t make sense.
Buttram and his friends started a nonpartisan Veterans League, collected $8,000 by calling people in the telephone book. Eight thousand dollars for newspaper and radio advertising, for loudspeakers, for handbills thrown from Piper Cubs, for gasoline to go from precinct to precinct.
The old-fashioned campaign of buttonholing, doorbell-ringing. And always, in every speech, every handbook, every radio program, they repeated over and over again, “YOUR VOTE WILL BE COUNTED AS CAST.” They hammered like that every day and the town buzzed with it. At first, Cantrell tried to laugh it off, then got annoyed. Finally. he got mad enough to make his first big mistake. He hired radio time to answer the charges. He denied everything, even the most obvious corruption.
“The charge of open gambling and selling whiskey over the bar is absolutely false; the allegation that GI’s have been arrested and their poll tax receipts taken away from them, does not contain a word of truth . . . For the past ten years, McMinn County elections have been cleaner than they have been in the history of the county … ”
The whole town listened. To them, it was funnier than Fibber McGee. Who did he think he was kidding? For hours after each Cantrell broadcast, the party lines were full of the laughter of the town. With their laughter came more hope: “You know what, Tom, those boys may do it. Did you hear about how they cut down Cantrell’s list of absentee voters from 1,200 to 400? They just cut out the names of all those people who were dead and buried. These boys are mad, and they’re not scared. Maybe … ”
The “terrible thing” started early on election morning. While long lines of people waited to vote outside the Third Precinct polling place at Etowah, the next GI election-watcher, named Evans, said to the election judge, “I’d like to look inside that ballot box first, if you don’t mind.” The judge smiled, “Oh, you would, would you?” Two minutes later, several deputies dragged a badly beaten Evans to jail. The judge appointed a Cantrell man to take his place.
But the real trouble started that afternoon, on Athens’ North Jackson Street. Tom Gillespie came to vote in the waterworks building of the Eleventh Precinct, the same place he had been voting for years. Cantrell Deputy Windy Wise held Gillespie’s thin ballot to the light, saw whom he was voting for, and said, “Get the hell outa here … ” When old Gillespie protested, Windy slugged him with his brass knuckles. Gillespie staggered, started running, and Windy yelled to the other deputies, “Grab that nigger … ” Then he pulled out his gun and shot Gillespie in the back.
Shortly afterwards, at the same polling place, Mrs. Vestal and a group of parents and teachers, told election judge Karl Neil that they wanted to stay and watch the ballot-counting. Mrs. Vestal’s son, Ed, had to stand still and listen to Neil tell his mother to get out and stay out – there was a gun sticking in Ed’s back.
Later, though, gun or no gun, Vestal and Charles Scott, Jr., both objected when Karl Neil placed two deputies so as to hide the ballot box. Neil just laughed at them. Suddenly, there was a crash of breaking glass, and women screamed. A crowd of several hundred people tensed while they watched Scott and Vestal stumbling forward in the street, their faces covered with blood. Instinctively, the crowd surged forward, curving to absorb Scott and Vestal, pushing toward the broken glass window. But fifteen deputies quickly formed a semicircle in front of the building, pointing their guns at the crowd to keep them back.
“Oh, my God, here it comes,” a woman screeched. Within minutes, the ballot box had been dumped into one of the waiting cars. The deputies then piled in, and the cars drove back to the jail, leaving behind a noisy, confused crowd. Almost at the same time, in a restaurant in the Twelfth Precinct on North White Street, election-watcher Bill Hairell asked a young girl how old she was. “I’m seventeen.” “Well, you’re under age, you can’t vote … ” Deputy Minus Wilburn scowled. “Hell she can’t.” When they carried Bill to jail, his skull had been split wide open by Wilburn’s blackjack, and his face was all bloody where it had been kicked.
It was a different street scene on West Washington Street, in front of the Ess-and-Kay Tire Company garage, where the Kennedy boys had beaten three insulting deputies while a big crowd watched, cheered and jeered: “You boys ain’t so tough once you lose your guns …”
Four more deputies wandered by, and the three Kennedy boys grabbed them, too, this time some of the crowd joining in to black a few eyes, rip some clothes. This time, the crowd cheered when seven deputies, minus their badges, guns and pants, were forced into several cars to be let out at the city limits. But there were still almost two hundred other Cantrell deputies scattered around the county.
Another sweating deputy was sitting and counting votes in the Niota schoolhouse, while several hundred citizens solemnly looked on. Earlier, Cantrell’s deputies had tried to clear the polling place of watchers, but the people simply swarmed in and overwhelmed the deputies. Then somebody read aloud the part from State Election Code 2087, permitted any citizen to watch the ballot counting. Elsewhere in Athens a citizen read aloud the section from the Declaration of Rights in the Tennessee Constitution, “That government, being instituted for the common benefit, the doctrine of nonresistance against arbitrary power and oppression is absurd, slavish and destructive of the good and happiness of mankind.”
That was the thinking that night of the big crowd of angry, loud talking people who marched down to the jail, where they stopped and waited, while one of them shouted out in the darkness, “Bring out those ballot boxes. . . .” From inside the jail, a deputy laughed. “Why don’t you call the law . . . ?” The answer came back quickly, cutting the laughter short, “There is no law in McMinn County.”
It was a long, stretched-out silence that lasted several seconds and then a deputy yelled, “Aw, go to hell … ”
Just then, somebody inside the jail fired at the crowd, hitting an ex-Marine named Gunter in the leg. The crowd scattered. From behind a hedge across the street, somebody fired at the jail. The Battle of Athens had started at ten minutes after nine.
“Come on, get guns… Get some guns.”
They came from everywhere. Farmers with old shotguns that hadn’t been fired in years, vets with 45′s and rifles, kids with BB-guns. Other men had broken into the armory for more arms and ammunition. A machine gun sat on top of the movie theater overlooking the jail. Another 30-caliber was parked behind the hedge near the post office across the street.
“At first, I thought it was just a lot of firecrackers going off,” remembered Mrs. Wilson, who lived in the white house facing the jail. “But these boys came in with rifles and told us, we better lie down on the floor. They were firing from the kitchen window, and we could hear the bullets hitting the drainpipe, and the plaster falling down. One bullet hit the faucet, and turned on the water full force. It even scared the boys who were shooting. My four kids were all crying so, I took them down to the Southern Soda Shop. Everybody there was scared, too.”
It was like a Wild West show, with a mob of people milling in the side streets, a few of them ducking the ricochets to come and get a peek now and then, racing away when the machine guns opened up. Chuck Redfern had the town’s grandstand seat. Chuck was reporting the battle all night long over WLAR, and the window of the radio station overlooked the whole scene. To get personal quotes, Chuck would occasionally race downstairs and talk to some of the men doing the shooting. One young vet told him, “I ain’t had so much fun since Guadalcanal.” An older man said, more seriously, “We’re gonna have a brighter tomorrow.”
Finally, somebody informed Chuck, ‘We’re gonna dynamite the jail. .. Tell that over WLAR … ”
It was past two that morning when word of the dynamiting went through the crowd, and a woman started screaming on Gettys Street, “Don’t do it . . . I’ve got a boy in that jail . . .” Another woman crept behind a nearby hedge and yelled, at the top of her lungs, to her husband inside the jail, “Don’t be a fool, Bill … Come on out … You want to get killed . . . ?”
The rest of the crowd cheered at the news, except for some old people who were praying aloud, “Our Father who art in heaven . .. ”
An ex-GI, who knew how, wiggled close and threw a single stick of dynamite, purposely short. After a long interval, with a second warning to the deputies inside, the second charge, two sticks, landed closer. The next one, three sticks, still closer, and Chuck Redfern watched the blast bounce the needle off his recording machine and told the radio audience, “It won’t be long now.”
The concussion of the last charge rocked the building. Before the smoke cleared away, the deputies were yelling hysterically, “O.K …. We’s giving up … We’s coming out … ”
“They were scared crazy,” said one of the veterans who went into the jail with the first bunch. “They were crawling around on the floor, some of them crying, some of them saying their prayers. One of them grabbed me around the knees and begged me to save him. They all thought we were going to kill them right away . , .”
They had good reason to think so. Outside, some two dozen new cars, belonging to the deputies, were being hacked, overturned, burned. Cantrell, Mansfield, the two State Highway Patrolmen, and many of the others had managed to sneak away, leaving about thirty-five deputies in the jail.
When the thirty-five were marched out single-me, their hands stuck high in the air, the crowd yelled, “String ‘em up . . .”
“Kill the bastards … ”
“Turn ‘em loose and let’s see how fast they can run … ”
Quickly, the hysteria, the car burning, and the mounting excitement of deep-rooted hate was turning the crowd into a mob, a mob ready to do anything.
“I want your attention … I want your attention … Listen to me …” It was Ralph Duggan, standing on top of a car, yelling as loudly as he could. Slowly, the crowd quieted.
“We’ve won our victory . . . The votes will be counted as cast … There won’t be any more gangster rule in Athens. . . . But we’re not murderers
. . . If we treat these thugs the way they treated us, then we’re as bad as they are . . . I ask you to go home peacefully . . . Remember, the whole country is watching what we’re doing here tonight … ”
The tension of tight silence broke. Slowly, reluctantly, the crowd started breaking up. But there was still a small knot of people around the much-hated Minus Wilburn, and by the time Duggan got there, somebody had slashed Wilburn’s neck. Duggan used finger pressure to stop him from bleeding to death.
By this time, Cantrell’s Election Commissioner, George Woods, had called from Chattanooga, promising to come into Athens and sign the election certificates, if they would protect him. Frank Cantrell called soon afterwards, from Etowah, to concede the election for his brother Paul, who was hiding in a church basement, somewhere in Athens. Meanwhile, the six tampered-with ballot boxes had been thrown out; the other six had shown the GI’s elected overwhelmingly by more than 2 to 1.
Sunday morning was a warm, clear day, and the men had put away their guns and were pushing baby carriages. And when people went to church that morning, they walked right by the jail, instead of detouring like they usually did. The next day, the paper commented, “The people went to church thankful that the gangsters had gone, thankful that nobody had been killed, thankful that the voice of the people could again be heard.”
The mail came in from all over the country, and Jim Buttram got most of it. The letters were full of warm praise and patriotic fervor and strong backslapping, but none of it meant as much to Buttram as a much-folded piece of paper that he always carried in his wallet. Datelined 5th Service Command Separation Center, Buttram had underlined these words, “If you see intolerance and hate, speak out against them . . . Make your individual voices heard, not for selfish things, but for honor and decency among men, for the rights of all people. Remember, too, that no American can afford to be disinterested in any part of his Government whether it is county, city, state or nation … ”
The battle was also the subject of a made-for-TV movie, An American Story (1992):