It was late summer, and the sun had only just set when automatic weapons fire erupted from the jailhouse. Several rebels made their way out into the street, trying to wave off oncoming vehicles so they wouldn’t stray into the crossfire, but they were cut down before they could flag off the approaching cars. The rebels returned fire, and an ongoing gun battle broke out that lasted several hours. Though the rebels had given the loyalists an easy escape route by leaving the back of the jailhouse unguarded, fighting continued until the early morning. It wasn’t until the rebels employed an improvised explosive that the defenders of the jail finally surrendered.
One would expect a story like this to come out of Syria. It would surprise most people to learn that this story took place in Tennessee only 66 years ago. So recent were these events that it would not be shocking to learn that there were still people around today who remember it firsthand.
Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about guns. With the shootings in Colorado and Wisconsin, some have once again begun to question the second amendment as a means of securing our freedoms. Often, they will ask if the cost is worth it. I’ve made my stance on guns no secret. I am of the opinion that no greater tool for democracy exists today. When it comes right down to it, a government, foreign or domestic, is less likely to step on toes if it might get its shins kicked in return
Still, people often balk at the sentiment. The idea of armed revolt on American soil is not only scary, but far-fetched in the minds of most. Most often, the response is a sarcastic ‘Yeah, like that will happen.’
The truth, however, is that it has, and recently. In the 1930 and 40’s, McMinn County, Tennessee was ruled by the wealthy Cantrell Family. Despite several federal investigations, no action was taken for nearly 20 years. After the war, the men came home to a very different country than the one they’d left. The sheriff was all but king, and his deputies were paid on bounty for arrests. Often, they would stop buses passing through the town to issue tickets for public drunkenness to innocent passengers to boost their own pay.
When the 1946 election rolled around, the current Sheriff, Pat Mansfield, called in 200 armed deputies. Mansfield had been installed as sheriff when Paul Cantrell bought a seat in the senate. After redistricting the state to limit resistance, the Cantrells then ensured that more than half of the local justices were on the payroll. The Cantrell family controlled every level of government in the region. The situation reached a breaking point when a black man named Tom Gillespie refused to be intimidated out of voting. Many would-be voters were beaten to prevent them from casting a vote against Mansfield, but when Gillespie persisted, he was shot in the back, and the ballot boxes were removed from voting stations for ‘counting’ at the heavily fortified jailhouse. Counting ballots in secret was also a breech of Tennessee state law. Townsfolk, enraged by the abuses and finally shooting, raided a national guard armory for weapons and marched on the jailhouse, led by a man named Knox Henry, a veteran of the war.
When the deputies defending the jail finally surrendered, a new vote was held, and Henry was voted into office as Sheriff on a nonpartisan ticket. Violent revolt had overthrown the corrupt system. Reactions in the press were mixed; many simply didn’t know the story of McMinn County. One editorial writer, published in the Daily Post-Athenian did, however. Her name was Eleanor Roosevelt.
“This is a lesson which wise political leaders learn young, and you can be pretty sure that, when a boss stays in power, he gives the majority of the people what they think they want. If he is bad and indulges in practices which are dishonest, or if he acts for his own interests alone, the people are unwilling to condone these practices.
When the people decide that conditions in their town, county, state or country must change, they will change them. If the leadership has been wise, they will be able to do it peacefully through a secret ballot which is honestly counted, but if the leader has become inflated and too sure of his own importance, he may bring about the kind of action which was taken in Tennessee.
If we want to continue to be a mature people who, at home and abroad, settle our difficulties peacefully and not through the use of force, then we will take to heart this lesson and we will jealously guard our rights. What goes on before an election, the threats or persuasion by political leaders, may be bad but it cannot prevent the people from really registering their will if they wish to.
The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.”
Wise words. Since the Battle of Athens, as it came to be called, the events of August 2, 1946, have become a rallying cry for defenders of the second amendment; a reminder that even our own government can forget its duty, and that we, as citizens, should not.