While a proposed mural to commemorate the 70th anniversary of "The Battle of Athens" would seem to depict a violent scene, artist Sam Welty and McMinn County Sheriff and County Historian Joe Guy hope it will inspire more thought into what the fight was really about.
On Election Day, Aug. 1, 1946, a large group of McMinn County citizens - many of whom were World War II veterans still fresh from the battlefields overseas - joined together in an armed revolt against potential voter fraud at the hands of machine politics that had ruled for decades. This event gained national attention and became known as "The Battle of Athens."
"To simplify 'The Battle of Athens' into just a shootout is a mistake," Guy said. "The political machinery that was such an issue dates back to the Civil War. Guns were certainly involved, but are not the whole of the story.¬�This event involved people who knew each other, who had lived with each other, some of whom were related.¬�It¬�involved a combination of things, including citizens challenging government operations,¬�desiring fair elections, and changing the form and operation of local government. More importantly, it¬�is a story of a community experiencing a traumatic event and,¬�afterward, coming back together better and stronger."
Put into a much larger context, Guy said the "Battle" is one of several instances where McMinn Countians have made their imprint on the political and governmental policies of both Tennessee and the United States.
"If you think about it, McMinn Countians had a very significant influence in giving women the right to vote, and 'The Battle of Athens' was yet another instance where McMinn Countians stood for what they believed to be just when it came to voting rights and the election process in this country," Guy said. "The 'Battle' led to the form of government we have today in McMinn County. We developed the County Commission and County Manager form of local government that was later adopted as the norm across the state and later across many parts of the South. The way counties are required to do their budgets in this state is based on McMinn County, and that's a direct result of 'The Battle of Athens.' So, when you think about it, it wasn't about guns, it wasn't about an uprising, it was about taking a stand and doing what was right and changing the structure of government for the better for all people."
Virginia artist Sam Welty hopes to convey that with a mural to be painted on the site of the 'Battle' on White Street at Carter Insurance in Downtown Athens.
"My personal mission is to paint the stories of American history town by town," Welty said, noting he has painted 11 murals so far in his "Great America" series. "Doing this is not my gift to you, it's your gift to me. It gives me purpose."
Welty said his mural will not focus on specific people but will try to convey a general idea of the event.
"I think it will capture the spirit of the event," Guy said of the mural. "It's not meant to be the end-all-be-all of what the 'Battle' was. The 'Battle' was about more than what's depicted in the images we see in photographs and in our minds. I hope the mural will cause people to embrace what happened and to consider what happened, to consider the historical significance of what happened and hopefully promote additional research and the preservation of those ideas at the core of the 'Battle:' The right to vote, the right to have fair elections, Second Amendment rights, the right to government of the people, by the people, and for the people."
Welty expects work on the mural to begin in the fall, with the project estimated at taking 10 days to two weeks to complete.
"I'll paint it in a sepia tone to give it the look of an old photograph," he said, "and will use brushstrokes and techniques that will cause it not to fade."
Welty is seeking some financial assistance, as well as assistance with lodging and even supplies for the project. Anyone interested in supporting the project or offering input on the mural can contact Guy at 745-5620 or email firstname.lastname@example.org