Thursday, December 27, 2012

Charlie Pierce provides information on an incident I've been curious about for years in The Battle of Athens Revisited Esquire Politics Blog 12/18/2012.

Neal Peirce and Jerry Hagstrom wrote this brief description of the incident in The Book of America: Inside 50 States Today (1983):

The first signal of change to come [in post-Second World War Tennessee] was the famed "G.I. Revolt" of 1946, in McGinn Country, East Tennessee. The returning veterans, having battled tyranny abroad, determined not to countenance the vicious, corrupt Democratic politicians who had gouged the local populace and used physical violence and vote fraud to main their power. With rifles and dynamite - "as nearly justifiable," John Gunther commented, "as political violence can ever be" - they overthrew the local bosses and restored a semblance of democracy under the Republican banner.
This, of course, was the Southern Democratic Party in the days of segregation. The segregationist cause has now been enthusiastically embraced by today's Republican Party. Things were different in 1946.

Peirce and Hagstrom relate that Tennessee politics up until the Second World War had been dominated by the corrupt Edward "Boss" Crump of Memphis. As they put it:

In the city [of Memphis] itself, Crump provided honest and efficient government by means of a controlled black vote and social terrorism leveled against any and all white opponents.

Fundamentally, prewar Tennessee suffered under what one critic described as an "established pattern of poverty-plenty, segregation-white supremacy, disfranchisement-oligarchy."
That story of a group of Republicans overthrowing their local county government in 1946 by force and violence has always intrigued me since I first heard about it.

Charlie Pierce's pieces gives some additional description of it, largely by way of The Battle Of Athens by Lones Seiber American Heritage 36/2 (Feb/Mar 1985). Seiber's account reminds us that revolutions tend to be messy, though this small one seemed to produce less mess than many:

The "victory" of the veterans that night in August 1946 appeared, at first, to have settled nothing. The national press was almost unanimous in condemning the action of the GIs. In an editorial perhaps best reflecting the ambivalence of a startled nation, The New York Times concluded: "Corruption, when and where it exists, demands reform, and even in the most corrupt and boss-ridden communities, there are peaceful means by which reform can be achieved. But there is no substitute, in a democracy, for orderly process." The syndicated columnist Robert C. Ruark commented: "There is very little difference, essentially, between a vigilante and a member of a lynch mob, and if we are seeking an answer to crooked politics, the one that the Athens boys just propounded sure ain't it." Commonweal cautiously compared the battle to the American Revolution, then went on to say that "nothing could be more dangerous both for our liberties and our welfare than the making of the McMinn County Revolution into a habit."

In the early days of August 1946 a power vacuum existed in McMinn County that easily could have spawned anarchy. Armed GIs patrolled streets that were still tense with rumors of a Mansfield army poised to reclaim Athens. Hundreds of men were issued permits to carry weapons, and machine guns on rooftops guarded the approaches to town. Several times groups of veterans rushed to barricade roads and occasionally they terrorized innocent travelers in their attempt to thwart an invasion that never came.
Political life returned to normal; the county wasn't run by a Revolutionary Directorate, nor did it declare itself a Soviet Republic of McGinn County.

What I didn't know is what Pierce points out in commenting on a mention of it on TV by far-right extremist Larry Pratt, head of the Gun Owners of America crackpot group:

The events in question have become iconic on the fringe of the gun movement wherein resides Larry Pratt and, indeed, the veterans of McMinn County, fresh off battlefields in Europe and the Pacific theater, were disinclined to get pushed around by political bosses who'd stayed safely at home and gotten fat off the political spoils. It's important to remember, however, that these same arguments are largely denied in history to, say, the coal miners at Matewan, or to the Black Panthers, whose arguments from the 1960s are indistinguishable from those made by Pratt to Matthews last night. Both groups were equally powerless against a political machine deaf to their pleas. Somehow, I doubt that Larry Pratt has a picture of Fred Hampton or Sid Hatfield on his office wall.
But inventing their own versions of history and twisting them freely to serve their own far-right ideology is standard operating procedure for today's gun lobby groups and for the Republican Party that today supports them. It's impossible to imagine the Gun Owners of America group or the National Rifle Association mounting an armed resistance to defend democracy. Their plenty busy promoting fear, hatred and paranoia to sell as many guns and as much ammunition as possible. They are far-right gun fetishists, first, last and everywhere in between.

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