Harold Powers was only 20 when he watched a frightening sight unfold here 60 years ago: Battle-hardened World War II veterans in a shootout with armed sheriff's deputies.
The so-called Battle of Athens began Aug. 1, 1946, when veterans opened fire on the local jail to stop corrupt local officials from stealing an election.
"It was scary," said Powers, a retired elementary school principal who was right in the middle of the fighting and was sprayed with pellets from a shotgun blast.
Felix Harrod, 84, was a 25-year-old poll watcher at the courthouse during the shootout and said it was common for incumbents in the county about 45 miles northeast of Chattanooga to take ballot boxes to the jail and stuff them with pre-marked ballots.
That was a practice the former soldiers hoped to stop. They offered an all-ex-GI, nonpartisan ticket that promised a fraud-free election and reform. Their rallying cry: "Why fight overseas for freedom and come home and be denied the right to have your ballot counted?"
Dynamite ended it
The shooting continued until the pre-dawn of Aug. 2 when the former soldiers tossed dynamite at the jail, prompting deputies and a sheriff candidate holed up with ballot boxes to surrender.
The uprising left one man with a bullet wound and sent a deputy to prison.
On the 60th anniversary of the uprising, Powers and others who can recall the 1946 violence shake their head as state election officials predict only about 35 percent of voters will cast ballots in Thursday's primaries in Tennessee.
"The lesson is that people ought to take voting a whole lot more seriously than they do and not let things get out of hand," Powers said. "Don't let the politicians just take over."
The insurrection prompted a drastic change in the makeup of McMinn County government. McMinn County historian Joe Guy, now an assistant to the county mayor, said it amounted to the start of the county manager form of government.
Former Tusculum College historian Jennifer E. Brooks described the battle as "the most violent manifestation of a regional phenomenon of the post-World War II era" in the Tennessee Encyclopedia.
"Seasoned veterans of the European and Pacific theaters returned in 1945 and 1946 to Southern communities riddled with vice, economic stagnation and deteriorating schools," wrote Brooks, now a professor at Auburn University.
"Across the South, veterans launched insurgent campaigns to oust local political machines they regarded as impediments to economic 'progress.'"
Guy said it remains unclear exactly how many veterans took up arms for the Battle of Athens.
"Estimates have ranged between 50 to 250," he said. "No one really knows. It wasn't any organized military type of assault. They only wanted the ballot boxes."
The former soldiers raided National Guard and State Guard armories for weapons, and the governor mobilized the Guard, although troops never went to Athens.
The veterans shielded themselves behind overturned cars as they fired shots at the jail from across the street. Sympathizers even served them refreshments.
"It almost got to be like a party-type atmosphere," Guy said.
Guy said that after the fighting, the GIs recovered several ballot boxes that hadn't been manipulated and counted the votes. The veteran-backed candidates were declared the winners and sworn into office.
"The McMinn County veterans had won the day in a hail of gunfire, dynamite, and esprit de corps," Brooks wrote.
The local government had been part of a statewide political machine run by Memphis Mayor Ed "Boss" Crump.
"That's just the way things were all over the South, machines everywhere," Guy said. Outdated state laws and overly powerful sheriffs who had the power to arrest and collect fines and fees contributed to the frustration.
"Unfortunately Athens sort of got to be the tinder point of a great many social problems," Guy said.
Powers said the violence was motivated by disgust about corruption. "Some folks just had had all they could take. They just lost it," Powers said.