The Battle Of Athens
The GIs came home to find that a political machine had taken over their Tennessee county. What they did about it astounded the nation.
February/march 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 2
August 1, 1946: Election Day found voters lined up early in the largest turnout in local history. Joining them were some three hundred of Sheriff Mansfield’s special deputies. Trouble began early. At 9:30 A.M. Walter Ellis, a legally appointed GI representative at the first precinct in the courthouse, was arrested and jailed for protesting irregularities.
Sirens wailed throughout the morning, and police cruisers were seen speeding toward the jail. GIs began gathering on Washington Street outside L. L. Shaefer’s jewelry store, which served as an office for their campaign manager, Jim Buttram, who had seen action in Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Normandy. Above the door a sign read: “Phone 787, Jim Buttram,” the number to which voters were to report election fraud. Only after prolonged pounding did a harried Buttram cautiously open the door to his comrades. As more than two hundred GIs filled the small store, the somber mood of their leader told them they were in trouble. He showed them copies of two telegrams dated July 22: one he had addressed to Gov. Jim McCord, Nashville, Tennessee; the other to Att. Gen. Tom Clark, Washington, D.C. They requested assistance to ensure a fair election. Neither had been answered.
Otto Kennedy, not an ex-GI himself but a political adviser to the veterans, entered the office and announced that Cantrell had posted armed guards at each precinct. They all knew that this move was in preparation for the 4:00 P.M. poll closings when the ballot boxes would be moved to the jail for counting. A small group of the veterans demanded an armed mobilization and called for a leader. Buttram declined. So did Kennedy, but he offered the rear of his Essankay Garage and Tire Shop across the street as a meeting hall.
The group crossed the street, held a meeting, and agreed that those who did not have weapons should get them and return as quickly as possible.
By 3:00 P.M. most were back at the Essankay and most were armed. At about this time, Tom Gillespie, an elderly black farmer from Union Road, stepped inside the eleventh-precinct polling place in the Athens Water Works on Jackson Street. Windy Wise, a Cantrell guard, told Gillespie, “Nigger, you can’t vote here.” When Tom protested, Wise struck him with brass knuckles. Gillespie dropped his ballot and ran for the door. Wise pulled a pistol and shot him in the back as he reached the sidewalk.
The crowd began to demand the lives of the captives; some veterans agreed.
The first shot of the day brought crowds streaming up Jackson from the courthouse. Sheriff Mansfield’s cruiser turned off College Street and screeched to a halt in front of the Water Works, and deputies loaded the bleeding Gillespie into the car. Mansfield ordered the precinct closed, posted four deputies outside to guard the Water Works, and then took Gillespie to jail. A dozen veterans from the Essankay started up Jackson toward the Water Works. They were unarmed.
During the confusion following the shooting, the two GI poll watchers, Ed Vestal and Charles Scott, had been seized and held hostage inside the Water Works by Wise and another Cantrell deputy, Karl Neil. When the veterans reached the Water Works, the crowd began taunting the armed guards. As Wise and Neil stood at a window watching the angry throng outside, Vestal and Scott plunged through the plate-glass windows and ran bleeding for the protection of the crowd. Wise stepped through the broken glass, waving his pistol; several veterans rushed forward but were quickly pulled back to safety. One of them shouted, “Let’s go get our guns!” and they left for the Essankay.
In the meantime Chief Deputy Boe Dunn had his men form a cordon from the building to his cruiser, and the ballot box was carried out to the car. Wise told Dunn about the GIs’ threat; the chief deputy ordered two of his men to GI headquarters to arrest those whom Wise could identify. The rest of the deputies piled into the cruiser, which sped back toward the jail.
When the two deputies reached the GI headquarters, they were disarmed and taken prisoner; so were two others sent later as reinforcements. A crowd began to gather outside; three more deputies came with pistols drawn, only to be pummeled and dragged inside. The crowd began to demand the lives of the captives; some of the veterans agreed. This talk alarmed Otto Kennedy, and he left, vowing to have no part in murder. The crowd began to disperse, and most of the GIs left; soon a small nucleus of veterans was alone with seven hostages. The veterans took the hostages to the woods, ten miles out of town, beat them, and shackled them to trees.