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Battle of Athens was Waterloo for Crooked Politicians

Excerpt from article by Fred Brown in Knoxville News Sentinel Mar 25, 1990

In many ways, McMinn County touches a bit of all the best of East Tennessee. Within its triangular boundaries are pieces of the region's whole, fragments of its entire tapestry. In 1540, the old Spanish gold hunter himself, Hernando DeSoto, dropped in on McMinn.

The county is a live in Cherokee Indian history; on its eastern border rises Starr Mountain, which has produced many a fine yarn and character; its valleys contain some of the finest farm country in the Tennessee Valley; its wooded knobs on the west and its parallel ridges on the east present views of singular beauty; its creeks carry singsong Indian names: Consauga, Chestua, Estanelle.

From the beginning, McMinn County was filled with a restless people. Many from the 19th century who were heading for the outback of the Southwest Territory, pushing the frontier in front of them like waves, simply stayed when they got to McMinn. They liked what they saw. And with good reason.

This migratory fact may explain something of why the area's politics have been so bombastic. People on the move, new blood coursing through the mainstream, tend to enliven any community and the one thing that can be said of McMinn politics - they have been lively and interesting, if not downright belligerent.

Had it not been for McMinn County, women suffrage would not have become law as quickly as it did. The fellow who cast the final vote for woman suffrage was from the county.

In 1920, Tennessee was the showdown state for women suffrage The national referendum on the constitutional amendment had been approved by 35 states with 36 needed for ratification. When State Representative Harry T. Burn cast his vote in the Tennessee House on that hot August day to ratify, woman suffrage became law. His was the final vote.

There are more than political shenanigans in McMinn County. There is American humorist, Will Rogers for one. His father, Clement Vann Rogers was from McMinn, which is a pretty good indication of its people. McMinn is also the place where three of the state's governors were either born or buried. Officially, established Nov. 13, 1819, the county was named for three-time governor, Joseph McMinn, who is buried in a cemetery in Calhoun, where Bowater Inc. operates the nation's largest newsprint mill.

But the county is also something else. It is a living history of the will to overcome, to persevere and to balance out the hard times with the good. Starting with the Civil War, McMinn was the scene of much destruction. Not so much from fighting but from troops on both sides moving through, claiming property and livestock.

Not quite 65 years after the end of that strife, the county was sledge hammered by the Great Depression, which settled over the land like a bad dream. Only in McMinn, it seemed to be a nightmare. Farms were lost. Families were displaced, and when the banks failed in Englewood and Etowah, it was if a great darkness crawled across the land. Families were forced off their farms. Many had to live with relatives to endure the economic disaster. But if it had not been for the farms, the Depression would have been far worse here. They knew how to plant and to harvest a crop and in the end those old values and traditions saved many lives.

When World War II came along, McMinn's boys answered the call willingly, which is a particular characteristic of East Tennessee. Only this time there was a difference. When the boys over there began to get letters from back home, there was disturbing news. The political machine in the county had run amuck.

It was a time of the fee system for politicians. Poll taxes were the rule. Stuffing ballot boxes was an ordinary event on Election Day. Even the dead voted by proxy.

The county was run by machine politics tied to the tendrils of the powerful E.H. "Boss" Crump organization of Shelby County, nearly 400 miles away in Memphis. There has been nothing like Crump, the mayor of Memphis, since Reconstruction. He ran the state like lord over vassal. When the boys returned home, McMinn County went through one of its most spectacular moments in history and one that may not have an equal anywhere else in the state or nation.

Not since the Civil War had anything resembling the event taken place. There was an armed insurrection by the returning veterans, rising up against corrupt politicians. They took over the town to save the election - and the people. It was a turning point in the county's history. To set the scene, the story begins a few years prior to what is now known as the "Battle of Athens"

In the 1930's, Boss Crump rose to extraordinary power in the state. As the state's political don, through patronage he virtually owned the legislature. His people always won. Not always fairly. They just won.

In McMinn County during this era, it was a time of sheriff's gangs who strong armed citizens and tourists. Gambling and bootlegging blossomed. The sheriff was paid a meager salary but earned thousands of dollars on expenses based on the number of people arrested and jailed.

For a decade, the system and the machine of state Senator Paul Cantrell and Sheriff Pat Mansfield, both Crump men, worked with dedicated efficiency. But by 1946, when the boys came home from fighting for democracy, freedom and a way of life, they discovered their county was as far from being democratic as the fields of death the had just left.

The veterans decided to go to battle once more. This time though the battle was at the ballot box. At first.

The soldiers turned politicians put up a bipartisan slate of candidates in the 1946 elections in Athens. They vowed that any citizen who cast his vote would have his vote counted as it was cast.

The situation could not have been more explosive. One who saw it all and broadcast it to McMinn County and eventually to the world was C.C. "Chuck" Redfern. Today he is county trustee, but in 1946 he was station manager and announcer for WLAR in Athens. He had ringside seat perched on a fire escape outside a building facing the McMinn County jail.

Trouble began early in the voting when ex-GI's, who were poll watchers, asked to see ballot boxes and were refused. A black man, another veteran, was shot by a hired deputy. Later, ballot boxes were taken to the jail and late in the evening, the veterans, fresh from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific, broke into the National Guard Armory, and began handing out guns and ammunition. No one had to tell them what to do next.

They surrounded the jail and were on a high bank looking down into the building. Strategically, they had placed a .30 caliber machine gun atop a building overlooking the jail. When shooting broke out it lasted all night. Early in the morning, a soldier slithered underneath parked cars near the jail and tossed dynamite onto the jail porch. The explosion blew away part of the porch and collapsed a portion of it supported overhang. That did it. The deputies came out with their hands over their heads. They were hustled to the corner of Washington and White streets. A huge crowd gathered.

It was dramatic. Some wanted to hang the deputies. One deputy's throat was slashed. By now, it was not only the veterans who were gathered and doing the shouting. Through out the all-night war in the streets no one was killed, although several were wounded.

"But no one died. That is the miracle of the battle and in fact it change politics in this county forever," says Redfern. "We went to a county council form of government with a county manager after that. Later, in the 1980's, we changed to a county executive system. But what happened that night has been a good thing. It brought about a sound two party system. People have paid attention to the elective process."

Redfern pauses, reviewing the terrible moments of that night. "When I first came here from Illinois, just after the war, people told me that they took two things seriously here - religion and politics. I found out real quick about the politics. I was a Marine in the South Pacific, but I came closer to getting killed that night than I did in the war," he says as he inches to the edge of his chair. " I will never forget. I used to sign off the air 'This is the friendly voice of the friendly city. When I signed off that night you could hear the shots bang, bang, bang in the background. That broke me up."


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