‘Get the Hell Out of Here and Get Something to Shoot With’

2

August 1, 1946 — Election Day

Stella Vestal and five other women walked through downtown Athens, Tennessee, to the waterworks polling place. Their plan was to meet in the center of town and vote near closing time. Then they would hold their ground and insist on their right to witness the count. Poll watchers had been intimidated, arrested and assaulted throughout the day. Surely these thugs wouldn’t threaten women? Stella and her crew voted without incident. And then stayed.

“Get out!” shouted Carl Neil, the officer of election.

“We have a right to watch you count the ballots,” said Stella.

“Go on, get out of here.”

Ed Vestal, Stella’s son, was at the polling place too, as a poll watcher representing the GI Ticket—an all veterans party made up of Democrats, Republicans and independents challenging the political machine that had dominated life in their county for the past decade.

Ed had spent 34 months as a combat engineer in the Pacific and returned with two purple hearts. He was not about to let some machine flunkie like Carl Neil disrespect his mother. Shy Scott, a former bomber pilot and GI poll worker, physically held him back, as both of their lives depended on it. There were six armed deputies and only two of them. Barely an hour earlier one of those deputies, Windy Wise, had shot a man for trying to vote.

Stella knew that to stay would force a confrontation that would get her son killed. She led the group of women out of the waterworks and back across the street to the courthouse square. They were the last voters of the day.

Inside the waterworks, Scott and Vestal were ordered to sit away from the count. Through the clear plate glass door a crowd of hundreds could see what was happening and roared in anger.

Charles Scott Sr., Shy’s father, yelled from across the street: “Come on out. We don’t want you boys alone in there with those gangsters.”

“If we can’t see the ballots, there’s no point in staying,” said Shy. He and Vestal stood and began to walk out.

Carl Neil spoke up. “Men, if you have to kill ’em, kill ’em,” he told the deputies. “Don’t let ’em out.”

“Sit down, you’re staying right here,” said a deputy, aiming a gun at the two veterans.

The men sat, waiting until they saw Post-Athenian editor Neal Ensminger and publisher Lowell Arterburn show up to get preliminary vote totals. The reporters were ordered to go away, but Shy Scott figured his chances for escape would never be better than with two newsmen outside. He turned to face the deputies: “Lowell Arterburn is looking at me. I don’t believe you’ve got the guts to shoot.”

Scott leapt out of his chair, used a desk as a springboard, and hit the glass door with a thud. It didn’t break. Vestal was right behind him. The deputies came at them with brass knuckles and guns. Scott jumped at the door again and shattered the glass, tumbling to the ground, and Vestal followed. Scott and Vestal were on their knees in a pile of shattered glass, cut and bleeding. Windy Wise was the first deputy behind them. The GIs were fast to their feet. They raised their hands to the sky and walked between parked cars across the street toward the crowd.

Windy Wise pointed his weapon directly at the back of Shy Scott.

“Oh, God, here it comes,” shouted one woman.

The GIs had run for office on an unusual platform: “Your vote will be counted as cast.” The public needed no convincing to vote the machine out of office: In fact, they had probably done so at least three times before. But the regime had no fear of losing, and never let the people forget it.

The sheriff and his deputies used the town as their own personal bank, arresting citizens for made-up crimes and pocketing the money made on every arrest. Many of the GIs learned this the hard way: Deputies greeted every busful of returning veterans and, knowing they had mustering out pay, invented reasons to take them to jail. That was just what they earned on the books: Casinos, brothels and roadhouses paid for protection.

Elections followed a familiar script: The machine marked up and mailed themselves absentee ballots in the names of others, some of whom were living; armed deputies ran the show; ineligible voters were allowed to cast ballots, sometimes more than once, while legitimate voters were turned away or forced to use see-through ballots; members of the public, entitled to watch the vote count, were forced away at gunpoint; ballot boxes were removed from polling places to the jail and other buildings controlled by machine gunmen. The results were whatever the machine decided they were.

To the GIs, who had been told that they were fighting for the free world, the situation was intolerable. Their political movement was planned in secret. Organizers communicated in code and never met in the same place twice. They went public in May, 1946, with a convention of 300 veterans, nominating a slate of GIs on a good government program. Any notions that they would have a fair election were quickly disabused.

The county provided one voter registration book for veterans, which never seemed to be in the courthouse when GIs went looking for it. For those who were able to sign up, they often found themselves arrested and their poll tax receipt, which they had to present on Election Day in order to vote, stolen by officers. One GI told his story to the press, and found himself arrested again, along with his father, and forced to sign a recantation in front of four carloads of deputies, a judge, the police chief and the mayor of Athens.

The GI candidates and their supporters were threatened over the phone and through the mail. Their volunteers were attacked by deputies and their headquarters vandalized.

In the run-up to Election Day, Clyde Rogers, the county court clerk, had a falling out with the machine. He publicly revealed how he and his father had helped steal the 1936 sheriff’s race for Paul Cantrell, which had established the machine in office. Clyde’s father was arrested and robbed by deputies. Clyde’s sister called Cantrell’s wife and told her what she thought about that. Hours later Clyde’s brother-in-law, Bill Murphy, was shot behind the counter of his drug store by the Rucker Brothers, two of the deadliest policemen in the machine’s employ.

Perhaps scariest of all, the machine made no effort to campaign. They offered no response to GI charges of corruption. There were no signs they planned to win at the ballot box.

The polls opened at 9:00 a.m. on August 1. The GIs issued a statement over WLAR: “Go to your precincts, vote and stay around all day to hear who wins. This is not old Germany. Hitler is not telling you how to vote. You will be safe at the polls and your vote will be counted as cast.”

Deputies were clustered at the entrance of every polling place, “so thick a voter can hardly get in.” Few were admitted at a time and lines remained long. Deputies hovered over the voters as they marked their ballots.

An urgent message was sent to the Department of Justice: “TERRORIZED, JAILED AND PUT OUT OF POLLING PLACES. CITIZENSHIP HELD AT BAY BY ARMY OF ARMED DEPUTY SHERIFFS AT POLLING PLACES IN MCMINN COUNTY.” There would be no response. Over 1,000 messages had been sent to the DOJ from McMinn County over the previous 10 years—the worst allegations of voter fraud ever submitted, according to one U.S. attorney general. But the Department of Justice did little, belatedly indicting some low-level henchmen, who were all but freed by a corrupt judge. The machine that ran McMinn County was part of the network that ran the state, and they could always count on the courts, state police, national guard and deputies from neighboring counties to ensure they remained in power.

J. B. Collins of the Chattanooga News–Free Press sat in his car and scribbled furiously on his notepad: “… electric tension generated by one of the most spirited political campaigns … appeared near the snapping point as polls opened at 9 o’clock this morning. … Townspeople stood in quiet, whispering groups on the street corners …”

Collins looked up to see a group of officers surrounding his car. “Name, address, and your business here,” they demanded.


He told them.

“Can’t take any chances with strangers,” they said, walking away. Collins went back to writing: “Everyone speculated on ‘when the fireworks will begin.’” It would be 3:00 p.m., as it turned out.

Tom Gillespie, age 60, was as kind a man as you could find in the Friendly City. He took his rights seriously as the grandson of people who couldn’t vote. He walked into Athens Waterworks and marked his ballot for the GI candidates.

Deputy Windy Wise stood between Tom Gillespie and the ballot box. “You can’t vote,” he said.

“Why’s that, Mr. Wise?”

“N—-r, you can’t vote here today.”

Gillespie insisted on his right to cast his ballot. Wise punched him with brass knuckles and shoved him outside the door onto the sidewalk.

Then Gillespie stood up. And he walked back into the polling place. He folded his arms and leaned against the wall, letting everyone know that he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Damn you!” said Wise. “I told you that you were not voting in this damn precinct today!” He whipped out his gun wildly and pulled the trigger.

Confusion and silence followed. And then Gillespie’s shirt turned red with blood. He leaned against the wall for support.

“Get that n—-r out of here,” shouted Wise.

The crowd outside went from anxious to furious as deputies dragged Gillespie from the waterworks. The deputies waved their guns to keep them at bay.

Radiomen Allen Stout and Frank Larkin arrived from WROL Knoxville to broadcast Election Day news. Their first stop was the jail to talk with Sheriff Pat Mansfield. They were interrupted by deputies carrying a bloodied Tom Gillespie. “What do you want us to do with him?”

“Take him to the hospital,” said Mansfield, who resumed the interview as though nothing had happened.

The GI poll watchers were helpless to protect themselves, much less their supporters. Since before the polls opened they found themselves roughed up and thrown in jail. They were the lucky ones.

Minutes after Tom Gillespie was shot for trying to vote, Bob Harrill, a GI poll worker at the Dixie Café polling place, objected to an ineligible voter casting a ballot. “Damn you,” said Deputy Minus Wilburn. “You been giving us trouble all day.” He drew his club and cracked Harrill over the head. And again until he hit the ground. Wilburn kicked Harrill in the face and continued to beat him.

Les Dooley, a GI poll watcher who had lost an arm in the invasion of Morocco, stood up and felt guns in his ribs from two different deputies. Wilburn tried to pull out his gun. It snagged in his holster. He tugged at it harder. Repeatedly. Dooley thought it would go off and kill Harrill on the ground.

When Wilburn finally finished his beating, two deputies took Harrill—bleeding and unconscious—to the jail, where deputies stole his wallet, including the photographs of his family he’d carried throughout the war.

That’s when Wilburn decided there had been enough voting at Dixie Café, 45 minutes before the scheduled closing time of 4:00 p.m. He and other deputies blocked the door using two-by-fours. Wilburn pointed a gun at Dooley and ordered him to a back room in the café, stocked with empty beer bottles. “Sit. Don’t move.”

The deputies opened the ballot box and began counting votes, a landslide for the machine, to hear them tell it.

The entry to the Dixie Café was in an alley. Deputies blocked off both ends with cars and stood guard in case anyone didn’t get the hint.

Following the escape of Shy Scott and Ed Vestal from the waterworks polling place, the ballot box from there and Dixie Café were removed by a small army of deputies and brought to the jail for counting. People watched, their “faces grim.” Yet another election was being stolen in front of their eyes.

Bill White, a marine who had served on Guadalcanal and Tarawa, had known it would come to this. Earlier that summer, he had stood up at a meeting of the GI Party and asked: “Do you think they’re going to let you win this election?” Nobody had wanted to hear it. Now he stood among a despondent and dwindling group of GIs at a garage in downtown Athens. Most had given up and gone home, conceding yet another election to the machine. White had never made a speech in his life. But, now, he knew that if someone didn’t light a fire under the handful of GIs who remained downtown that everything would be lost.

“Well! Here you are!” White said “After three or four years of fighting for your country. You survived it all. You came back. And what did you come back to? A free country? You came back to Athens, Tennessee, in McMinn County, that’s run by a bunch of outlaws. They’ve got hired gunmen all over this county right now at this minute. What for? One purpose. To scare you so bad you won’t dare stand up for the rights you’ve been bleeding and dying for. Some of your mothers and some of your sisters are afraid to walk down the streets to the polling places. Lots of men, too! Because they know what happens. A car drives by in the night and shoots out your windows. If that doesn’t scare you enough, they’ll set fire to your house or your barn. They’ll beat up members of your family and put them in jail. For no reason! Is that the kind of freedom you were supposed to be fighting for? Do you know what your rights are supposed to be? How many rights have you got left? None! Not even the right to vote in a free election. When you lose that, you’ve lost everything.

“And you are damned well going to lose it unless you fight and fight the only way they understand. Fire with fire! We’ve got to make this an honest election because we promised the people that if they voted it would be an honest election. And it’s going to be. But only if we see that it is. We are going to have to run these organized criminals out of town, and we can do it if we stick together. Are you afraid of them? Why, I could take a banana stalk and run every one of these potbellied draft dodgers across Depot Hill. Get the hell out of here and get something to shoot with. And come back as fast as you can.”

The GIs had opened their headquarters with such fanfare—a sign of their political viability a block from the courthouse. They had passed happy days there, answering encouraging phone calls and greeting enthusiastic supporters. Now here they were, divvying up guns and ammunition.

Then Bill White and the fighting bunch walked out of headquarters for the last time. They made a right on Jackson Street, past the First National Bank, and the waterworks with its shattered glass door, on a sidewalk stained with the blood of Shy Scott and Ed Vestal, who wanted nothing more than to witness an honest count. They walked past the Post-Athenian building, with its giant blank tally board. Had it been any other county in America, they’d be watching that tally board filled in, precinct by precinct, recording a landslide for the GIs. They crossed Hornsby Street and stopped in front of Tennessee Wesleyan College. A reporter noted them “milling around in the center of the street,” draped in ammunition, carrying guns. They were waiting for last light to make their move on the jail.

Walt Hurt of The Knoxville News-Sentinel walked up to them. “What is your purpose here?” he asked.

“We just want to see an honest election,” said one.

“A fair count,” said another.

A reporter likened the atmosphere to an “electrifying spark you feel just before a kickoff at a championship football game.”

Allen Stout resumed his broadcast at 8:30 p.m.: “The crowd is converging on the county jail at this time. But no violence has been reported. Everyone here acts as if they are waiting for a time bomb to explode. That may happen. All women have just been ordered off the street.”

“Bring those boxes out and there won’t be any trouble,” someone yelled from the GI side.

An answer came from the jail. “You’re going to have to come get them.”


“That’s what we’re going to do.”

“Why don’t you call the law?” someone shouted from the jail.

“There ain’t no damn law in McMinn County!” someone yelled from the embankment.

Enough talking, Bill White thought. He pulled back the bolt on his rifle.

Chuck Redfern was on the air in his studio across from the courthouse: “You’re listening to WLAR, the friendly voice of the Friendly City.” Gunfire exploded in the background and was carried on the airwaves to homes across the county.

The “crowded streets and sidewalks instantly … changed into mass disorder. Women and children screamed and ran for cover, stumbling, crawling, running into doorways and alleys, hiding behind ash cans, automobiles, telephone poles. Men, some cursing, some praying aloud, followed them.” J. B. Collins ran into the entryway of a clothing store, “half kneeling, half crouching,” crammed with a dozen other people.

Ella Eaves, 50 years old, fell and hit her head on the sidewalk. The first injury of the battle.

Both sides were now firing almost simultaneously, “Flashes stabbing through the darkness as carbines, shotguns, pistols, and an occasional submachine gun went into action.”

The Battle of Athens, as it would be known, ended after six-hours of shooting, four dynamite blasts, over 20 hospitalizations, and untold property damage before the ballots could be counted.

Does this sound like an Election Day experience you’d like to have?

Violence has settled disputes throughout nearly all human history and still does in much of the world. Americans have generally—with conspicuous exceptions—been exempt. But this year, more than 40 percent of Republicans and 40 percent of Democrats believe at least some violence would be justified in the upcoming election if the other party’s nominee wins. The above is what a violent election looks like, where the GIs won the most votes and found that it wasn’t enough.

Eleanor Roosevelt called the battle “a warning” against attempts to prevent people from peacefully exercising their right to vote and failing to respect their decision. But if the Battle is a warning, the aftermath provides cause for optimism. The people of McMinn County quickly set aside the past and moved forward under the new GI leaders. If they can reconcile—after a decade of division and a battle of ballots that ended in a battle of bullets—there’s hope for us all.

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