Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bullets and Ballots

The song I’ve posted below isn’t as popular as Marvin Gaye’s hit “What’s Going On?”, but it is from the same album….the first of its kind for Motown…a concept album.

Gaye wrote the songs during a time of great depression when he isolated himself from the outside world.  This site explains....Through television news broadcasts, Gaye saw the racial, political, and social problems that were plaguing the world, manifestations from the explosion of political and social activism that took place during the late ‘60s. As he wallowed in his seclusion, Gaye read letters from his brother Frankie serving in the Vietnam War. They described the confusion and frustration he and other soldiers felt fighting in a war that had no just cause. Many black soldiers at the time felt doubly conflicted, drafted to fight and die for a country that refused to accept them because of the color of their skin. These observations, along with the loss of Tammi Terrell, motivated Gaye to question his role in the world and at Motown.

…The songs [from  the album] are told from the point of view of a black soldier returning home from fighting in a white man’s war. It is an unrecognizable America, filled with racial violence and uprisings, political strife and protests. The album is a question-inducing commentary about change, love, and hate.

The Vietnam War wasn’t the first war when soldiers came home to a changing landscape.  Many men and women returning from serving their country during World War II was met with changes as well….especially the solders from McMinn County, Tennessee
This site tells us….  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.

During the Civil War, McMinn County favored the Union and it was strong Republican held community, 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.

As more and more of McMinn’s able-bodied men began to head off to war Cantrell was able to gain more power.  Cantrell was elected Sheriff in 1936, 1938, and 1940.  Then he decided to run for State Senate and was elected in 1942 and 1944.  His chief deputy, Pat Mansfield took Cantrell’s position as Sheriff.

Cantrell was able to get a bill passed through the state legislature redistricting the county from 23 voting precincts down to 12….basically eliminating any Republication opposition.  Voting machines were sold supposedly to save money, but basically it was done so that votes could be tampered with a little easier. 

There were continued charges of election fraud in the form of swapped ballot boxes and voter intimidation.  The Department of Justice investigated each election from 1940-44, but no action was taken. 
The sheriff’s department operated a fee system where they received a cut of the money for every person they booked, incarcerated and released.  Buses headed through the county would be pulled over….people were ticketed for drunkenness as a matter of habit….it didn’t matter if they were guilty or not.

The people felt they were powerless to fight Cantrell and his men. Cantrell had taken advantage of the fact that most of his opposition was away fighting the war.  McMinn citizens hoped once their soldiers returned home things would change.

Bill White, [a soldier] recalled coming home from overseas with mustering-out pay in his pocket: “There were several beer joints and honky-tonks around Athens; we were pretty wild; we started having trouble with the law enforcement at that time because they started making a habit of picking up GIs and fining them heavily for most anything—they were kind of making a racket out of it.

...At last the veterans chose to use the most basic right of the democracy for which they had gone to war: the right to vote. In the early months of 1946 they decided in secret meetings to field a slate of their own candidates for the August elections. In May they formed a nonpartisan political party.

Leading up to the election both sides made charges against the other and ultimately the powder keg erupted on Election Day.   Cantrell’s machine hired men from neighboring towns to “keep the peace”, but basically they were there to intimidate people as they walked around polling places with pistols and blackjacks.  As in past elections anyone who objected to anything were labeled as troublemakers.

Poll workers were attacked and one was thrown through a glass door. Before all was said and done 20 people would be hurt that day, 14 cars were overturned and burned, and the jail ended up being under siege for several hours by several townspeople/ex-soldiers. 

Just another Election Day, huh?
During the melee Cantrell and some of his men fled the town.   The next morning the twenty-five deputies attempting to hold the jail gave up and surrendered.   The story goes they were taken to the edge of town, stripped naked and told to keep walking.

Miraculously there had been no deaths. But on August 2 a page-one headline in The New York Times wrongly trumpeted the news: TENNESSEE SHERIFF is SLAIN IN PRIMARY DAY VIOLENCE. All day long reporters with cameras and notebooks poured into town to photograph, question, analyze, and write. And every newcomer passed the sign on Highway 11:  WELCOME TO ATHENS “The Friendly City”.

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.” Commonwealth 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.”

On August 4 Pat Mansfield telegraphed his resignation as sheriff of McMinn County to Governor McCord and requested that Knox Henry fill his unexpired term, which would end on September 1. Henry was appointed immediately, and the next day State Rep. George Woods returned to the county under GI protection to convene the election commission and certify the election. A cheer rang out in the courthouse when Woods rose as the canvass ended and announced that Knox Henry was elected sheriff by a vote of 2,175 to 1,270. After their victory, GIs with machine guns waited for a Cantrell counterattack.

It never happened…….The Cantrell Machine in McMinn County had been quashed.

Henry Knox, the sheriff elected after the election 'war'

I guess my main point in bringing all this up is to say that it’s easy to think whatever issues our country is going through is something new….. wars, violence, racism, media spin, politics so polarized that nothing is done, conspiracy theories, conspiracy truths, talking heads spinning half-truths, being so busy thinking ahead to YOUR next point that you don’t HEAR the person across from you, and politicians so willing to hang on to the power of their office they are willing to make the so called solutions so convoluted that more chaos is created than solved.

Unfortunately, we haven’t learned from history, and our problems aren’t anything new…..we just have more outlets to throw the muck around instantly.

America is unrecognizable to me……

Just how polarized do things have to be before they get better?

What’s happening?

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