The battle was over ballots


Pay Haley - Contributing columnist



A road trip with my late brother, Jim, was always an adventure, and usually not uneventful.

He was an ideal traveling companion — fun loving, funny, and always open to roaming the back roads.

One afternoon, we received a call from our sister, Rita. “Dick and I are in Sarasota at Spring Training. Why don’t you and Jim come down for a week or so?” she asked.

We drove to Lexington, Kentucky and met son, Greg, and his wife, Kristen, for breakfast.

As I sat down, I noticed my left thumb was beginning to itch. Then it began to throb. Within a few minutes, I noticed most of my thumb had turned blue.

As we approached Berea, Kentucky, my thumb was throbbing every time my heart beat.

“Jim, we better stop at the hospital and let them check my thumb,” I said. The emergency room physician examined my hand and diagnosed a broken blood vessel, but said I should be fine.

“There is nothing worse than sore fingers,” Jim said.

Just as Jim said “fingers”, I pressed the window control and caught Jim’s fingers in the window. He couldn’t speak. He just kept looking at me and shaking his other hand. “Oh, my!” I said, as I realized I had pinned his fingers against the top of the window.

So it began.

After a few more miles and a few more stops, we stopped for the night at a Hampton Inn in Athens, Tennessee, McMinn County. As we got out of the car, we noticed a historical marker recounting an incredible but little-known story about Athens.

Imagine, if you will, leaving your hometown for a few years and coming home to finding your police force gone, strangers patrolling the streets with guns, and a city council made up of strangers. The courts were no longer unbiased. The town was in turmoil.

According to the marker, a sheriff by the name of Paul Cantrell, was appointed to the position by a Memphis political strongman, Edward Hull “Boss” Crump.

It wasn’t long before the town was plagued with corruption, police brutality and electoral fraud.

Sheriff Cantrell had established a system of fees, which meant the officers were paid per arrest. Tourists and visitors became special targets, often arrested for unsubstantiated acts of drunkenness.

Intrigued, Jim and I drove downtown and found some literature on the incident.

It appeared as time went by the racquet worsened. In August 1945, World War II ended and around 3,000 soldiers from McMinn County returned home.

The returning soldiers fresh from the horror of war and heavy combat didn’t take kindly to the harassment, assaults, and unjust fines. They couldn’t visit a tavern without being arrested. The former GI’s had been fighting corruption for the last five years and weren’t going to stand by and see democracy in their hometown abandoned. They decided to take action.

According to a brochure, the county election poll opened on August 1, 1946. At one of the polling places, a sheriff’s deputy refused Tom Gillespie, an elderly African-American farmer, permission to cast his vote. The deputy used racial slurs, and then struck Gillespie with a brass knuckle. Gillespie dropped his ballot and tried to run away. In response, the deputy drew his gun and shot him in the back.

On hearing this, Bill White, a sergeant who had fought in the Pacific theatre, addressed the former soldiers:

“You call yourselves GIs? You go over there and fight for four years, come back, and then let a bunch of draft dodgers push you around? Guys who stayed here where it was safe and dated your girlfriends while you were making it safe for them?”

The inspired men stormed from the tavern, broke into the National Guard Armory, and obtained weapons.

Why Cantrell decided to take on these seasoned soldiers, no one knows. His men rushed the former GI’s, but ended up getting beaten senseless and tied to trees outside town.

Cantrell got his remaining men to carry the ballot boxes to the county jail where he was going to secretly count the ballots.

Inside the jail, Cantrell and the deputies were caught red-handed counting the votes, without the presence of a second party. Used to combat, the former soldiers took the high ground.

Cantrell and his flunkies were pinned down. The militia opened a box of dynamite and threw several sticks at the jail, blasting off the front doors. The corrupt deputies soon surrendered.

The bravery of the former soldiers initiated statewide reform against corrupt politicians installed all across Tennessee by Edward Hull Crump.

“The young people around here don’t talk too much about that night,” the lady at the counter told Jim and me. But there are a few left in town who fired at the jail that night. One fella, who stills drives a taxi in town, threw the stick of dynamite that freed this town forever.”

“We owe our freedom to those brave men who fought for us twice,” the lady said, as tears welled up in her eyes.

It is hard to imagine such a thing could happen in America. But it did. In 1946.

Pat Haley is a Clinton County Commissioner.

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Pay Haley

Contributing columnist