The Battle of Athens | AMERICAN HERITAGE

The laws of Tennessee provided an opportunity for the unscrupulous to prosper. The sheriff and his deputies received a fee for every person they booked, incarcerated, and released; the more human transactions, the more money they got. A voucher signed by the sheriff was all that was needed to collect the money from the courthouse. Deputies routinely boarded buses passing through and dragged sleepy-eyed passengers to the jail to pay their $16.50 fine for drunkenness, whether they were guilty or not. Arrests ran as high as 115 per weekend. The fee system was profitable, but record-keeping was required, and the money could be traced. It was less troublesome to collect kickbacks for allowing roadhouses to operate openly. Cooperative owners would point out influential patrons. They were not bothered, but the rest were subject to shakedowns. Prostitution, liquor, and gambling grew so prevalent that it became common knowledge in Tennessee that Athens was “wide open.”

For a full year afterward the national press seized upon the most insignificant news from Athens as evidence of the veterans’ “lawlessness.” There was, indeed, remarkably little criminal prosecution in the wake of that violent night. Only one man had charges brought against him: Windy Wise, the deputy who shot the old black farmer, Tom Gillespie, drew a sentence of one to three years.

In the mid-fifties Athens was isolated by a new highway that intercepts Highway 11 south of Niota and rejoins it at Riceville. Along it a new Athens grew, a town of McDonald’s, Kawasaki, and Pizza Hut. If you ask people along the street about the election of August 1946, they will point up White Street and mumble something vague about a shoot-out. There are no signs or monuments to commemorate the event; people have forgotten or do not wish to remember. But the graying manager of a local store, a friendly sort and so gentle with his grandchildren, squeezed off round after round at the jail that night. And the driver snoozing behind the wheel of his cab, not really caring whether he catches a fare or not, helped wrap and toss the deadly bundles of dynamite that sailed through the night air. You can bet they remember.

The Battle of Athens | AMERICAN HERITAGE