Polk’s Political Power Struggle
It took a 185 page thesis to research and write in detail about that explosive time in our history, so there’s no way I’m going to recount even a tiny portion of it in a couple of articles. There’s a fairly accurate account of the events that transpired done by Thomas Addison Lemond, Jr., called The Good Government League and Polk County (Tennessee) Politics 1946-1965 on our shelf at the PCHGS Library. As far as I know it was never published for sale, but was just Thomas’ Master’s Thesis project when he was in graduate school at Vanderbilt in 1970.
In last week’s article I mentioned some of the chilling events that transpired previous to the call for change by the returning GI’s. And the smoke had barely cleared after the ‘Battle of Athens’, in which the long entrenched Cantrell political party, with strong alliances to the Crump machine in Nashville, had been ousted.
Veteran, Dr. John Lillard is generally credited with the initial idea of a veterans reform group, but that was short lived, and he soon disavowed any connection with the GGL’s, when non-veterans Barclay and Arp were elected to leadership roles. He claimed they were only interested in ‘wresting political power’ from the current regime, which was actually only partially true, for they had worthy goals and aspirations for a clean government. Their slogan was “Freedom from tyranny in Polk County.” Polk County lost a good doctor when Dr. John took his practice to McMinn County. And I know of at least two excellent teachers, Miss Bess Gray and Miss Inez Clemmer, who went to Bradley rather than be dictated to as for whom to vote. I can just hear Miss Bess when she and Mr. Gray showed up to vote once, since they owned a house and land here, and were told to leave. One of the guards reached out to take hold of Miss Bess, and she drew herself up to her full height, looked him right in the eye, and between clenched teeth growled, “You touch me with that hand and you’ll pull back a bloody nub!” And I firmly believe that he would have, and apparently he did, too, for he didn’t touch her!
Ironically, the leading figure for change, Robert ‘Bob’ Barclay, had been a staunch supporter of the entrenched political party for years, but in 1943 he broke with them over the poll tax fight and the Copperhill Adjustment Act, and became their most outspoken critic. Just goes to show that you don’t mess with Basin folks.
So the Polk County Good Government League was formed, the 31st of August 1946 in Ducktown with 400 men in attendance, leaders elected, and the plan laid out to ‘overthrow the current regime and reconstruct and rehabilitate Polk County’s government.’ (Lemonds.) Candidates were nominated and endorsed for the November general election. One of the leaders in the McMinn revolt, John P. Cartwright, was nominated for State Senator on the nonpartisan GGL ticket, and Polk’s Frank Lowery was nominated for the state representative from Polk and Bradley. Estes Kefauver was endorsed for re-election as US Representative.
Getting a bit antsy about the growing GGL influence, both parties held huge rallies and barbecues, with speakers making campaign promises everyone knew wouldn’t be kept. And just a few weeks before the election, a directive was received from the assistant attorney general, Thomas Malone, stating that the ballot boxes were to be ‘opened in the presence of such of the electors as may choose to attend to see the boxes opened and names read aloud from the ballots.’ Wow! And how long had it been since that had been done in a Polk County election - many, many, years?
Long story short, all candidates endorsed by the GGL won by impressive margins! And with that victory in their pocket, the organization immediately began to make plans for the next biggie - the election of 1948. (It would take another book to cover all that transpired between then and the election, so we’ll fast forward.)
Lemonds writes, “On election day August 5, 1948 voters turned out in record numbers, as over 5,000 went to the polls.” It might have been an even greater turnout if it hadn’t been for the threats and intimidation toward League members’ attempts to pay their poll tax. Add to that the tension created by the murder of three men in Copperhill just a month before, and the presence of the National Guard sent in at the request of Sheriff Biggs. The next morning there was a motorcade bringing the ballot boxes from the precincts to the courthouse and one was fired on, but no one was hurt.
The Chattanooga News Free Press said, “Throughout the county national guardsmen and Tennessee highway patrolmen kept the streets around the Benton Courthouse cleared and under the muzzles of machine guns. All cars were searched for weapons, backing up the road blocks from concealed positions were guardsmen prone in ditches and behind underbrush with automatic rifles and .30 caliber machine guns trained on the point where the cars were ordered to halt.” Pictured is the Guard searching a barn for stored weapons.
So, how did the hard fought election of August 5, 1948 turn out? It was four days later that things had finally settled enough to where the ballots could be counted. The witnesses consisted of five Democrats, five GGL representatives, five members of the press, and five national guardsmen. Lemonds writes, “The official results were stunning, as the GGL candidates won every individually contested office, and Democrat nominees managed victories in only four posts, one seat on the three man county commission, and three positions on the county court.”
And peace and justice prevailed and they all lived happily ever after? Not! But that’s another story, too. With political candidate signs covering our roadways indicating that we’re smack dab in the middle of an important election year, I hope we will all heed Roy Lillard’s admonition that “we as Polk Countians will look toward the growth and betterment of the county. And trust that we will never have a similar situation in Polk County, and that citizens of all political parties will hereafter work toward the good of Polk County regardless of political alignment.” Amen, and Amen!
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