The GIs came home to find that a political machine had taken over their Tennessee County. What they did about it astounded the nation.
While President Donald Trump told reporters on Monday that people can expect to “see a lot of big things” over the coming days and on alleged election fraud, there was a time when GI’s and citizens took over a local election.
In McMinn County, Tennessee, in the early 1940s, the question was not if you farmed, but where you farmed.
Athens, the county seat, lay between Knoxville and Chattanooga along U.S. Highway 11, which wound its way through eastern Tennessee.
This was the meeting place for farmers from all the surrounding communities. Traveling along narrow roads planted with signs urging them to “See Rock City” and “Get Right with God,” they would gather on Saturdays beneath the courthouse elms to discuss politics and crops. There were barely seven thousand people in Athens, and many of its streets were still unpaved.
The two “big” cities some fifty miles away had not yet begun their inevitable expansion, and the farmers’ lives were simple and essentially unaffected by what they would have called the “modern world.” Many of them were without electricity. The land, their families, religion, politics, and the war dominated their talk and thoughts.
They learned about God from the family Bible and in tiny chapels along yellow-dust roads. Their newspaper, the Daily Post-Athenian, told them something of politics and war, but since it chose to avoid intrigue or scandal, a story that smacked of both could be found only in the conversations of the folks who milled about the courthouse lawn on Saturdays.
Since the Civil War, political offices in McMinn County had gone to the Republicans, but in the 1930s Tennessee began to fall under the control of Democratic bosses. To the west, in Shelby County, E.H. Crump, the Memphis mayor who had been ousted during his term for failing to enforce Prohibition, fathered what would become the state’s most powerful political machine.
Crump eventually controlled most of Tennessee along with the governor’s office and a United States senator. In eastern Tennessee local and regional machines developed, which, lacking the sophistication and power of a Crump, relied on intimidation and violence to control their constituents.
In 1936 the system descended upon McMinn County in the person of one Paul Cantrell, the Democratic candidate for sheriff. Cantrell, who came from a family of money and influence in nearby Etowah, tied his campaign closely to the popularity of the Roosevelt administration and rode FDR’s coattails to victory over his Republican opponent.
Fraud was suspected—to this day many Athens citizens firmly believe that ballot boxes were swapped—but there was no proof.
Over the following months and years, however, those who questioned the election would see their suspicions vindicated.
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