The primary election was held on August 1. To intimidate voters, Mansfield brought in some 200 armed "deputies." GI poll-watchers were beaten almost at once. At about 3 p.m., Tom Gillespie, an African- American voter was told by a sheriff's deputy that he could not vote. Despite being beaten, Gillespie persisted. The enraged deputy shot him. The gunshot drew a crowd. Rumors spread that Gillespie had been shot in the back; he later recovered (C. Stephen Byrum, The Battle of Athens, Paidia Productions, Chattanooga, TN, 1987; pp. 155-57).
Other deputies detained ex-GI poll-watchers in a polling place, as that made the ballot counting "Public" A crowd gathered. Sheriff Mansfield told his deputies to disperse the crowd. When the two ex-GIs smashed a big window and escaped, the crowd surged forward. The deputies, with guns drawn, formed a tight half-circle around the front of the polling place. One deputy, "his gun raised high...shouted: 'If you sons of bitches cross this street I'll kill you!'" (Byrum, p.165).
Mansfield took the ballot boxes to the jail for counting. The deputies seemed to fear immediate attack by the "people who had just liberated Europe and the South Pacific from two of the most powerful war machines in human history" (Byrum, pp. 168-69).Short of firearms and ammunition, the GIs scoured the county to find them. By borrowing keys to the National Guard and State Guard armories, they got three M-1 rifles, five .45 semi-automatic pistols and 24 British Enfield rifles. The armories were nearly empty after the war's end.
According to contemporary news stories listed in comments, this was not the only town where machine politics and corruption were fought by vets, in some cases without the need for violence.
As the story points out, the lessons of Athens are important illustrations of the need for the individual right protected in the Second Amendment:
Those who took up arms in Athens, Tennessee, wanted honest elections, a cornerstone of our constitutional order. They had repeatedly tried to get federal or state election monitors and had used armed force so as to minimize harm to the law-breakers, showing little malice to the defeated law-breakers. They restored lawful government.
The Battle of Athens clearly shows how Americans can and should lawfully use armed force and also shows why the rule of law requires unrestricted access to firearms and how civilians with military-type firearms can beat the forces of government gone bad.