Athens, Tennessee. The story is also known as the McMinn County War. My ancestors lived there from about 1800 to the present day. I learned about this by going to Athens to do genealogy research and it’s a pretty interesting story (and not the only really interesting one to emerge from McMinn County). The movie has some resemblance to the true story but the actual story is a little more dysfunctional than what actually happened and, of course, there’s the whole matter of sub-titling the film, ‘Restoring The Rule Of Law”. Strictly speaking the rule of law is a goal by which the courts settle disputes so that arms are not necessary.
As the actual history of the McMinn conflict goes, employing the rule of law wouldn’t have been a bad idea but I doubt the people there had the financial resources to get the legal help they needed. But in the case of McMinn County, there was the problem of the police doing what virtually every little hamlet in the south did in the evolution of our country; Athens was a speed trap and full of beer joints and the leadership was profiting off of vice – even when there was no vice. The cops got paid a kind of commission based on how many tickets they handed out and arrests they made. They would stop cars passing through and make up fraudulent charges and milk the innocent people. I know about that kind of town. I lived in one. But their big mistake was when they started arresting GI’s in the beer joints whether they had been drinking or not. And that was the big deal that really ignited the upset. You don’t mess with a man’s liquor. The GIs got fed up with it and they decided to take political action to throw the bums out of McMinn County. That’s when the real war started. The police stole the ballot boxes and they shot a black man who was trying to vote.
Was the rule of law restored by the shooting? I don’t think so. Over the course of decades that followed, both the state and federal government cleaned out the corruption in these little towns and didn’t fire a shot. I can’t blame the people of Athens for being angry but this no extraordinary example or justification for armed insurrection. If anything, it’s an extension of the kind of “Kingdom on Every Hill” that prevailed in this country from it’s founding. The difference is, the voters of McMinn County weren’t nearly as long-suffering and patient as thousands of little towns were throughout the country. You really couldn’t call what McMinn County had “government”. I was more like the Mafia since the police and justices of the peace were paid off to do the bidding of a godfather. The cops would stop a bus passing through Athens and arrest all the passengers for public drunkenness even when none of them were drinking. They would hold them in jail until their relatives coughed up the money and wired it to the police to obtain their release. The justice of the peace got paid off to jail them and the cops got their commission. It was post-prohibition thuggery and it was actually aided by religious prohibition loyalists of a kind who were especially pious and absolute and who just couldn’t get over the fact that prohibition was repealed. They wanted to rid the town of beer joints so they voted for the mafia mentality that enforced their views.