The McMinn County War - Encounter Books

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The McMinn County War

A Case Study in How Second Amendment Rights Can Protect First Amendment freedoms
By Timothy Sandefur | September 13, 2016

In 1946, a group of soldiers returning to their hometown of Athens, Tennessee after World War II became fed up with the corruption and brutality of the county’s Democratic political machine. Under the leadership of boss E.H. Crump, the machine dominated politics by intimidating, assaulting, and outlawing the opposition—in one instance, abolishing the independent judicial review of election results and giving the job of counting ballots to the Sheriff’s Department, which was run by Crump’s cronies.

The sheriff’s office operated on a fee system whereby deputies were paid for each citation they issued and suspect they booked. Deputies often cited or arrested citizens on falsified charges for a quick buck—sometimes more than $100 per week—and frequently stopped buses on their way through the county in order to charge every sleeping passenger with public drunkenness. Others demanded payoffs from local businesses to ignore gambling or prostitution on the premises.


E.H. Crump, Memphis Democratic Party boss. Photo courtesy of University of Memphis Special Collections.


Political protests against these practices did no good, because deputies bribed or intimidated voters, stole ballot boxes, or paid minors to vote and because many state officials were themselves members of the Crump gang. Federal attorneys brought corruption charges against local officials, but judges and juries were too fearful to stem the abuse.

Finally, frustrated veterans decided to act. They met secretly to form their own political party, the “G.I. Ticket,” which included a veteran candidate for each countywide office, and issued a platform promising that under their leadership, “every ballot will be counted.” Knowing the danger they faced, the group asked the governor and the federal Department of Justice for protection. All refused. On August 1, election day, the sheriff brought in 200 armed “special deputies” to menace the voters. One G.I. Ticket poll watcher was arrested when he disputed whether a voter was qualified. Other veterans were kidnapped by deputies who took them to the county jail or dropped them off naked in the woods to keep them from reaching the polls. At one precinct, officers pulled guns on G.I. observers, who fled by leaping through a plate-glass window. Later, a group of officers led by a deputy named Windy Wise beat black veteran Tom Gillespie with brass knuckles when he came to vote. When Gillespie tried to run away, Wise shot him in the back.

When the polls finally closed, sheriff’s deputies confiscated the ballot boxes and took them to the county jail, to “count” the ballots in secret. Twenty-one-year-old Marine veteran Bill White then spoke up. He would not let Crump’s lackeys steal the election, he told his friends. He had “faced a thousand bullets for democracy” fighting the Japanese at Tarawa and had been awarded two Purple Hearts. Now he was ready to “fight fire with fire.” He and 60 other G.I.s marched to the local armory, where they seized guns and explosives before heading to the county jail to liberate their wrongfully arrested allies and stop the sheriff from manipulating the ballots.

With the men surrounding the jail, White shouted at the guard towers: “Would you damn bastards bring those damn ballot boxes out here or we are going to set siege against the jail and blow it down?” Gunfire erupted. The G.I.s kept up the siege for hours, blasting away with their rifles and blowing up sheriff’s cars with dynamite. The sheriff asked the governor to dispatch the National Guard, but the Guard’s commanding general refused to aid the corrupt local officials. At last the G.I.s blew down the jail door and the deputies surrendered. The soldiers marched them around the town square to the cheers of the townspeople. Some locals attacked the captured deputies, especially Wise, who was badly beaten before being arrested and charged for shooting Gillespie. He was later sentenced to three years in prison.

When the ballots were counted, the G.I. Ticket had won by a landslide, and the county sheriff promptly resigned in favor of his G.I. challenger. Among those who cheered the soldiers’ uprising was former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “If we want to continue to be a mature people who, at home and abroad, settle our difficulties peacefully and not through the use of force,” she wrote in her syndicated newspaper column, “then we will take to heart this lesson and we will jealously guard our rights. . .  The decisive action which has just occurred in our midst is a warning, and one which we cannot afford to overlook.”

Undated photo. Quote: 'Athens Jail - Where the G.I.'s fought and won the famous election battle - Athens, Tenn'

While the McMinn County War dramatized the way Second Amendment rights can protect First Amendment freedoms, a more personal case in 2011 demonstrated how interconnected these rights can be. Paul Dorr, a member of the Taxpayers Association in Osceola, Iowa, had complained about what he considered the exorbitant salaries paid to county officials. Soon after he handed out leaflets protesting Sheriff Douglas Weber, he learned that the sheriff had rejected his application for the renewal of his gun permit. “Concerns from Public. Don’t trust him,” Weber wrote on Dorr’s application. Although Weber could cite no specifics about why Dorr might be untrustworthy, Iowa’s law included a lax “discretionary issue” rule, which gave the sheriff the power to enforce his own personal attitudes. “Paul was granted permits by Sheriff Weber and his predecessor for five years without incident,” a federal judge later wrote, “but then was denied a renewal of his permit only after he became associated with the Osceola County Taxpayers Association and engaged in advocating its position that Sheriff Weber and other county officials were overpaid.” Such retaliation violated Dorr’s First Amendment rights.

Freedom of speech and the right to own guns thus share in serving social, as well as individual, interests: the First Amendment promotes the democratic goals of deliberation and persuasion, while the right to self-defense enables people to defend themselves against social upheavals such as riots, terrorism, or persecution—as well as against the corruption of public officials. Both amendments support the republican vision of the founding fathers, ensuring a socially responsible citizenry whose freedom is intertwined with their willingness to defend their rights. The violation of either right undermines the stability of democratic institutions—and the government should not be allowed to force citizens to get its permission before exercising either freedom.

This piece has been adapted from Timothy Sandefur’s new book, The Permission Society: How the Ruling Class Turns Our Freedoms into Privileges and What We Can Do About It.
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Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute. Before joining Goldwater, he served 15 years as a litigator at the Pacific Legal Foundation, where he won important victories for economic liberty in several states.

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