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“Those who beat their swords into plough shares shall plough for those who don’t.”
By Mr. Curmudgeon:
The New Deal’s Political Machines
“I am indeed grateful to you for all that you have done,” wrote New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt in a 1932 letter addressed to Tennessee’s Edward Hull “Boss” Crump, “I should much like to have a good talk with you before you go to Chicago. Can you not run up to see me either in Albany or in Hyde Park? There are many things I should like to talk over with you.”
FDR was hoping to gain Crump’s political support ahead of his run for the presidency. Crump, who served as Memphis mayor and in Congress, built a powerful Democratic Party machine with tight control over his state. Crump would serve as one of Roosevelt’s floor managers during the 1932 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Needless to say, Tennessee benefitted greatly thanks to Roosevelt’s New Deal (the Tennessee Valley Authority), which served to further empower Crump.
A beneficiary of this brand of machine politics was the smaller Democratic political machine of McMinn County, headed by former Tennessee Democratic State Senator Paul Cantrell. The funny thing about machine politics – depending, of course, on your sense of humor – is that votes rarely count … especially when calculated by the servants of the corrupt machine.
New Sheriffs in Town
McMinn County’s political machine encountered mechanical problems when 3,000 servicemen (around 10% of the county’s population) returned home from the Second World War. They thought Roosevelt’s “arsenal of democracy” should live up to the claim. After all, the shattered remains of their military comrades rested in graves from Normandy to the murky Pacific depths of Iron Bottom Sound – sacrifices made in defense of American freedom.
The McMinn County authoritarian machine, given a clean bill of health by the Justice Departments of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations, believed it could continue stealing elections. Feeling a bit threatened by the returning vets, Sheriff Mansfield and his deputies introduced the returning heroes to the darker side of machine politics in the small Tennessee town of Athens.
As veteran Bill White recalled, “There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens. We were pretty wild. We started having trouble with law enforcement at the time because they started making a habit of picking up GI’s and fining them heavily for most anything – they were kind of making a racket out of it. After long hard years of service – most of us were hard-core veterans of World War II – we were used to drinking our liquor and our beer without being molested. When these things happened, the GIs got madder – the more GIs they arrested, the more they beat up, the madder we got.”
In response, the vets established the GI Non-Partisan League, fielding several candidates for local office, which included 34-year-old Army Air Corps vet Knox Henry for McMinn County sheriff. Worse still, for the machine that is, the vets promised local citizens a clean election. Seeing a viable threat to its power, the Cantrell machine hired extra deputies for the August 1 election of 1946; some from out of town … some from out of state.
The Battle of Athens
“Poll watchers from the GI Non-Partisan Ticket were harassed by county deputies, some were beaten, and others were arrested,” writes author Steven Laurence Danver in his book Revolts, Protests, Demonstrations, and Rebellions in American History. “When a black farmer who was also a World War II veteran attempted to vote in one of the county’s precincts, a deputy argued with him, told him he could not vote and finally shot the man. When news of such tactics spread among the people in the community, mobs began to attack some of the deputies and by the middle of the afternoon, several deputies had been beaten and forced to leave town.”
As Beatrice Cleage Johnson, an African-American resident of Athens, recalled, “There were around nine thousand residents in Athens. Of these, seven hundred Negroes played a small part in the election, but they formed a balance of power. Most of the Negroes were Republican, received threats, and repeated arrests from the Democrats.”
When the polls closed, ballot boxes were taken to the Athens Water Company for “counting.” But two GI poll-watchers, who witnessed Cantrell election rigging and were held by deputies against their will, escaped by crashing through plate glass windows and alerted their comrades. Fearing a mob would stop their election fraud, deputies transported ballots to the sheriff’s office to provide “security for a safe and careful count of the vote.”
The Guns of August
Retrieving keys to the local National Guard armory, the veterans secured three M-1 Garand rifles, five model 1911 .45 caliber handguns and 24 British Enfield rifles. With Democratic goons resorting to violence in an attempt to maintain power, armed veterans surrounded the Athens jail.
From their positions inside the jail, 75 Cantrell goons engaged in a gun battle with the armed citizen soldiers surrounding them. With thousands of rounds exchanged, the battle was a stalemate. That is, until the dynamite arrived.
At 2:59 a.m., GIs placed homemade demolition charges near the jail’s front door. The jarring blasts did the trick and frightened the sheriff’s deputies into surrendering.
When the ballots were finally counted, Army veteran Knox Henry was certified the new sheriff of McMinn County.
Some were less than happy with the honest election results. In an editorial published two days after the veterans’ armed revolt, a New York Times editorial condemned the vets for violating “a fundamental principle of democracy” by claiming “to themselves the right of law enforcement for which they had no election mandate.” It was of little concern to the Times’ editorial board that a corrupt, Jim Crow Democratic political machine – with ties to the Roosevelt administration – repeatedly stole that “mandate.” But at least the Gray Lady is consistent in her slavish devotion to autocratic Progressivism.
In a disgusting column printed in Democratic-friendly publications across America, FDR’s widow attempted to salvage her late husband’s sinister legacy. “In this particular case, a group of young veterans organized to oust the local machine and elect their own slate in a primary,” wrote Eleanor Roosevelt, “We may deplore the use of force but we must also recognize the lesson which this incident points for us all … The most powerful machine cannot exist without the support of the people. Political bosses and political machines can be good, but the minute they cease to express the will of the people, their days are numbered.”
Well, hurray for “good,” racist and authoritarian “political machines”!
The Knoxville Journal scolded the voters of Athens, saying, “The next time you find that your government has fallen into the hands of unscrupulous politicians just say, ‘It’s my fault, I had a chance to do something about it but slept through it.”
To be fair, a violent Democratic political machine had intimidated the citizens of Athens into submission. It was lucky for them that men returning from foreign wars refused to allow what they defeated in Germany and Japan, by force of arms, to flourish in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”