The Battle Of Athens


For a full year afterward the national press seized upon the most insignificant news from Athens as evidence of the veterans’ “lawlessness.” There was, indeed, remarkably little criminal prosecution in the wake of that violent night. Only one man had charges brought against him: Windy Wise, the deputy who shot the old black farmer, Tom Gillespie, drew a sentence of one to three years.

As for the larger results of the Athens rebellion, the GIs universally hailed the return of the “independent vote” to the community and the election of “fine people” to lead it. The national press continued to show interest in what had happened (the best, if incomplete, account of it at the time was a Harper’s article by Theodore White).

Finally, on the first anniversary of the violent election, the Times reported, “Today it appears that this political coalition of World War II veterans for direct action in community affairs, which many at the time regarded as a factor likely to develop nationally in the postwar period, was purely [a] local phenomenon in which veteran participation was incidental.” With this epilogue the press turned away from tiny Athens.

Knox Henry served two terms as sheriff of McMinn County and was succeeded by Otto Kennedy. Paul Cantrell, after seeking temporary asylum in Chattanooga, returned to Etowah and continued to operate the bank there with his brothers. They are all dead now, as is Jim Buttram. Otto Kennedy still lives in Athens. Pat Mansfield returned secretly to Athens on August 8, 1946, to resign his membership on the election commission. He met with Otto Kennedy for two hours, apparently with no ill feeling on either side, and then announced: “I’m through with politics for good. It’ll sure mess you up sometimes. I’m going back to railroading.”

Athens has not changed that much in forty years. There is a new courthouse, an imposing structure that is too large for its site. The old one burned down during renovations in 1964. Farmers no longer gather on the square; there is no place for them. An effort at downtown renovation can only be described as timid, a cautious imitation of similar projects in the larger cities. They have a new jail, an austere building that seems to embody the adage that crime does not pay. The Daily Post-Athenian is alive and well and still comfortably middle-of-the-road.

In the mid-fifties Athens was isolated by a new highway that intercepts Highway 11 south of Niota and rejoins it at Riceville. Along it a new Athens grew, a town of McDonald’s, Kawasaki, and Pizza Hut. If you ask people along the street about the election of August 1946, they will point up White Street and mumble something vague about a shoot-out. There are no signs or monuments to commemorate the event; people have forgotten or do not wish to remember. But the graying manager of a local store, a friendly sort and so gentle with his grandchildren, squeezed off round after round at the jail that night. And the driver snoozing behind the wheel of his cab, not really caring whether he catches a fare or not, helped wrap and toss the deadly bundles of dynamite that sailed through the night air. You can bet they remember.