60 years ago, veterans took up arms on election day in Tennessee

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, August 1, 2006

If video of U.S. soldiers fighting in the name of democracy a world away isn’t enough to inspire voters in an election year, Harold Powers thinks they should know about the day when GIs just back from war took up arms at home to make their votes count.

The “Battle of Athens” began Aug. 1, 1946, when veterans in the GI Non-Partisan League opened fire on the local jail to stop a courthouse ring from stealing an election.

The GI rallying cry: “Why fight overseas for freedom and come home and be denied the right to have your ballot counted?”

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Felix Harrod, 84, was a 25-year-old poll watcher at the courthouse during the shootout between GIs, some using weapons seized from an armory, and law officers, including one with a machine gun.

At the time, Harrod said, it was common for incumbents in the county about 45 miles northeast of Chattanooga to “take the ballot boxes to the jail and stuff them with pre-marked ballots.”

Powers, who in 1946 was a 20-year-old veteran who never fired a shot in World War II, was right in the middle of the fighting and was sprayed with pellets from a shotgun blast.

“It was scary,” said Powers, a retired elementary school principal.

The shooting continued until the pre-dawn of Aug. 2 when the former soldiers tossed dynamite at the jail, prompting deputies and a sheriff candidate holed up with ballot boxes to surrender. The day of the uprising left one man with a bullet wound and sent a deputy to prison.

With state election officials predicting about 35 percent of voters will cast ballots in Thursday’s primaries in Tennessee, Powers and others who can recall the 1946 violence over government corruption think such complacency is absurd.

“The lesson is that people ought to take voting a whole lot more seriously than they do and not let things get out of hand,” Powers said. “Don’t let the politicians just take over.”

The insurrection prompted a drastic change in the makeup of McMinn County government. McMinn County historian Joe Guy, now an assistant to the county mayor, said it amounted to the start of the county manager form of government.

Former Tusculum College historian Jennifer E. Brooks described the battle as “the most violent manifestation of a regional phenomenon of the post-World War II era” in the Tennessee Encyclopedia.

“Seasoned veterans of the European and Pacific theaters returned in 1945 and 1946 to Southern communities riddled with vice, economic stagnation and deteriorating schools,” wrote Brooks, now a professor at Auburn University. “Undemocratic, corrupt and mossback rings and machines kept an iron grip on local policy and power. Moreover, their commitment to the status quo threatened the economic opportunities touched off by the war. Across the South, veterans launched insurgent campaigns to oust local political machines they regarded as impediments to economic ’progress.”’

Guy said it remains unclear how many veterans took up arms for the Battle of Athens.

“Estimates have ranged between 50 to 250,” he said. “No one really knows. It wasn’t any organized military type of assault. They only wanted the ballot boxes.”

The veterans shielded themselves behind overturned cars as they fired shots at the jail from across the street. Sympathizers even served them refreshments.

“It almost got to be like a party-type atmosphere,” Guy said.

Guy said after the fighting, the GIs recovered several ballot boxes that hadn’t been manipulated and counted the votes. The veteran-backed candidates were declared the winners and sworn into office.

“The McMinn County veterans had won the day in a hail of gunfire, dynamite, and esprit de corps,” Brooks wrote.

The local government had been part of a statewide political machine run by Memphis Mayor Ed “Boss” Crump.

“That’s just the way things were all over the South, machines everywhere,” Guy said. Outdated state laws and overly powerful sheriffs who had the power to arrest and collect fines and fees contributed to the frustration.

“Unfortunately Athens sort of got to be the tinder point of a great many social problems,” Guy said.

Powers said the violence was motivated by disgust about corruption.

“Some folks just had had all they could take. They just lost it,” Powers said.

On The Net:

Battle of Athens: http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/imagegallery.php?EntryIDA043