- Historic Sites
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
A polling place for the twelfth precinct had been set up in the back of the Dixie Cafe, across Hornsby Alley from the jail, and it was commanded by Minus Wilburn for Cantrell. Bob Hairrell and Leslie Dooley, who had lost an arm in North Africa, were assigned as the Gl poll watchers. Throughout the day they had observed Wilburn letting minors vote and handing cash to adult voters. At 3:45 P.M., when Wilburn attempted to allow a young woman to vote despite the fact that she had no poll-tax receipt and that her name did not appear on the registration list, Hairrell’s patience gave out. As Wilburn reached to deposit the ballot, Hairrell grabbed his wrist. Wilburn slapped him across the head with a blackjack and kicked him in the face as he fell to the floor. Then he closed the precinct, ordered Hornsby Alley blocked at both ends, and, with a procession of guards, crossed the lawn to the jail with the ballot box and the GIs as captives.
The Cantrell forces had calculated that if they could control the first, eleventh and twelfth precincts in Athens and the one in Etowah, the election was theirs. The ballot boxes from the Water Works (the eleventh) and the Dixie Cafe (the twelfth) were safely in the jail. The voting place for the first precinct, the courthouse, was barricaded by deputies who held four GIs hostage, and Paul Cantrell himself had Etowah under control.
By 6:00 P.M. it seemed to be over. GI headquarters was deserted, and unhappy crowds moved quietly along the streets. Another election had been stolen, and nothing could be done about it.
At the Strand Movie Theater across from the courthouse, the marquee read: “Coming Soon: Gunning for Vengeance.”
Bill White, who had fought in the Pacific while still in his teens and come home an ex-sergeant, had gotten angrier as the day wore on. At two in the afternoon he had harangued the group of veterans in the Essankay, saying: “You call yourselves GIs—you go over there and fight for three and four years—you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around. … If you people don’t stop this, and now is the time and place, you people wouldn’t make a pimple on a fighting GI’s ass. Get guns…”
In the early evening White went to get the guns himself. He sent two GIs to get a truck and, with a few other veterans, perhaps a dozen, he headed for the National Guard armory. There, he said in a 1969 interview, he “broke down the armory doors and took all the rifles, two Thompson sub-machine guns, and all the ammunition we could carry, loaded it up in the two-ton truck and went back to GI headquarters and passed out seventy high-powered rifles and two bandoleers of ammunition with each one.” By 9:00 P.M. Paul Cantrell, Pat Mansfield, State Rep. George Woods, who was also a member of the election commission, and about fifty deputies were locked inside the jail and going through the ballot boxes. The presence of Mansfield and Woods meant that a majority of the election commission was on hand, so the tallies could be certified and validated on the spot. More deputies were still barricaded in the courthouse, but along the streets none were to be seen. If the Cantrell forces had been a bit more wary, they might have spotted some shadows slipping up the embankment directly across the street from the jail.
Opinion differs on exactly how the challenge was issued. White says he was the one to call it out: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down!” Moments later the night exploded in automatic weapons fire punctuated by shotgun blasts. “I fired the first shot,” White claimed, “then everybody started shooting from our side.” A deputy ran for the jail. “I shot him; he wheeled and fell inside of the jail.” Bullets ricocheted up and down White Street. “I shot a second man; his leg flew out from under him, and he crawled under a car.” The veterans bombarded the jail for hours, but Cantrell and his accomplices, secure behind the red-brick walls, refused to surrender. As the uncertain battle dragged past midnight, the GIs began to have some uneasy second thoughts. They knew that they had violated local, state, and federal laws that night, and if Cantrell was not routed before his rescuers arrived, they might spend the rest of their lives in prison. Rumors compounded their fears: “The National Guard is on the way!” “The state troopers are here!” “Birch Biggs and his gang are coming!” (Biggs ran Polk County more ruthlessly than Cantrell ran McMinn.)
If the veterans had known the truth, they would have been less apprehensive. George Woods had telephoned Biggs earlier that night for help. Biggs was not there, but his son, Broughton, took the call. His answer: “Do you think I’m crazy?” Woods then slipped out of town.