A television movie like An American Story couldn’t get greenlit today. In fact, it’s still surprising the Hallmark Hall of Fame and CBS joint production actually got broadcast back in 1992.
Yet this fictionalization of the Battle of Athens, the last and best modern example of American citizens forcefully asserting their Second Amendment rights, was actually shown only 21 years ago. The telepicture earned two Primetime Emmy nominations, one for music and another for cinematography.
This well made TV movie, starring Brad Johnson and directed by John Gray, depicted the last time in modern American history when a large group of decent, ordinary citizens were involved in an armed confrontation with criminally corrupt representatives of their own government.
The so-called Battle of Athens, Tennessee in 1946 involved the politically entrenched and brutally corrupt county officials of McMinn County verses local citizens who had finally had enough. Athens was a place where southern kingpin and State Sen. Paul Cantrell, his Sheriff Pat Mansfield and their loyal bully-boy minions made thousands of dollars harassing, imprisoning and fining who ever challenged the status quo – including large numbers of recently returned local World War II combat veterans.
Numbers of small town jails and courts across the country were run as out of control, for-profit enterprises in those days, lining the pockets of the local politicians, sheriffs and police officers. A county that had fought for the Union during the Civil War, McMinn County had consistently voted Republican until the early 1930s when corrupt Democrats promised to magically end the Depression.
For over a dozen years local dissenters, passers by and even tourists could find themselves unjustly being shaken down, threatened or thrown in jail at the whim of local officials while cooperative pimps, bootleggers and other such disreputable types merely paid off the local establishment.
More than 3,500 young men from the county had gone off to fight in World War II. Now, the lucky ones were coming back home, and they didn’t like the oppressive reception they received. Returning veterans, flush with military discharge pay, out for a night on the town or just having a beer were particularly singled out for roughing up and arrest by Sheriff Mansfield’s “enforcers.”
The veterans did their best to work within the system, petitioning both state and federal officials, including the U.S. Justice Department, about the oppressive and corrupt conditions in McMinn Country. Neither responded. So they finally organized and ran a non-partisan slate of reform candidates in the next county election. The day of the election, fearful of losing their illegal hold on power, the country “boss” and sheriff seized the ballot boxes – in direct violation of state law.
When elderly black farmer Tom Gillespie stepped inside the polling place at the Athens Water Works to exercise his Constitutional right to vote, one deputy viciously struck him with a set of brass knuckles shouting, “Nigger, you can’t vote here.”
When Gillespie tried to leave the same deputy shot him in the back as the old farmer struggled to get outside. In this case the brutal transgressors were Southern Democrats in a county that only a dozen odd years before had been predominately Republican, the party which had fought to end slavery.
That brutal act ignited the veterans to surround the polling place, but no one was quite sure what to do. As some civilians rushed home to fetch their personal firearms, Pacific theater veteran Bill White, still only in his early 20s, shamed a bunch of other veteran friends into taking action.
“You call yourself G.I.s? You go over there and fight for three or four years, you come back and you let a bunch of draft dodgers who stayed here where it was safe, and you were making it safe for them, push you around? You people need to stop them, this is the time and the place. You don’t do this, you wouldn’t make a pimple on fighting G.I.’s ass. Now lets get some guns.”
It was am earthy speech worthy of Colonel Travis at the Alamo, and White put his actions where his mouth was, gathering up several more veterans and breaking into the National Guard armory. They quickly loaded up a two-ton truck with every rifle and carbine they could get their hands on, boxes of ammunition and two Thompson sub-machine guns.
Soon hundreds of young veterans were laying siege to the county bosses and more than 50 deputies who had regrouped and reinforced themselves in the water works building. After hours of gunfire and finally a dynamite attack on the building by the G.I.s, the corrupt politicos and deputies surrendered. The veterans went out of their way to protect their prisoners, though other enraged citizens did manage to take out a measure of rough revenge on some of the former deputies.
Threats of National Guard troops and law enforcement reinforcements from neighboring counties never materialized, though other nearby veterans did show up to support their fellow G.I.s.
The events soon took on national attention, with of course the New York Times (even back then) critical of the veterans, while FDR’s widow Eleanor Roosevelt tacitly sided with the former G.I.’s, calling their actions a “cautionary warning” for oppressive government that did not represent the people’s interest.
Beside black farmer Gillespie, in the end a handful of G.I.s were also seriously wounded, as well as several of the deputies. The deputy who shot Gillespie in the back was eventually convicted and sentenced to several years in prison. When the ballots were legally counted the veteran’s reform slate placed five of their candidates in county office, the corrupt Cantrell political machine was ousted and Tennessee was finally placed on the road to real reform.
An American Story reset the action in small town Texas, but to anyone familiar with the Battle of Athens there is no doubt that the core of the story was taken directly from the events in Tennessee in 1946. Here was a true story that showed just how criminally oppressive government can become and how ordinary citizens and military veterans finally resorted to their Second Amendment rights to take back the “government of the people.”
The respected Hallmark Hall of Fame, better known for simpler-themed, but well made programs like Sarah Plain and Tall, and notoriously far left and anti-gun CBS were the broadcast professionals behind the project.
Today far left, anti-gun types in Hollywood, New York and Washington would consider this true-life story line as dangerously subversive. When actually what the events of Athens and the TV film version really represent is just why the Founders decided it was necessary to include the Second Amendment in the Bill of Rights in the first place – to help American citizens keep the government in check.
It may sound trite to some, or even out dated, but despite terrible tragedies like Sandy Hook, an armed people are still a free people – whether the elements of the government likes it or not. Who says that severe government oppression can’t happen here? A mere 67 years ago the World War II veterans of Athens found out differently and reacted just the way the Founding Fathers intended them to react – they took up arms.