The world had been embroiled in war, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and about 500 young men and women took to the streets of Bristol, angry over the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Disorder broke out on Sunday, Aug. 22, 1943, in the city of Bristol, Tennessee, where the members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were gathering for a meeting. The riot followed a house-to-house solicitation campaign conducted in Bristol during the previous 30 days by members of the religious organization seeking to sell literature, according to the Bristol News Bulletin.
That afternoon, demonstrators stoned the local meeting hall on Fourth Street and attacked vehicles belonging to members of the group.
Then, on Monday night, a crowd gathered and stoned the windows of a home on Hill Street and overturned an automobile, both belonging to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The crowd also attacked a home on Virginia Avenue.
The Bristol Tennessee Police Department, Bristol Virginia Police Department, Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office and Virginia State Police descended on Bristol to contain the disorder, described in the Bristol Herald Courier as riots.
The disorder had “gone beyond the state of simply summoning people to court and perhaps applying fines,” Bristol Tennessee Mayor Fred Vance told the newspaper. “Creating riots and mob violence is a penitentiary offense. We are going to do everything possible to see that the disturbances and destruction of property stop.”
Vance said he hoped the participants would realize their error.
“If the disturbances do not cease, state, county and city will take joint action to enforce order,” Vance said. “Such violence may result in serious injury or death to some involved, and may cause persons not involved in disturbances to be victims of the disorder.”
Officials from Bristol, Tennessee, and Sullivan County were so overwhelmed by violence in the city that they sought help from the state.
In a telegram to the Tennessee governor, Vance wrote:
“We have situation here beyond our control, riots in certain sections of the city, people threatened and forced to leave their homes. One residence here occupied by members of Jehovah sect stoned last night by mob of approximately 500 mostly teenage. Windows broken and automobile in yard wrecked. Another man forced to abandon his store and move stock.
“We see no way around this situation but to have the state guard with equipment on duty until excitement subsides. It is intimated that they plan to invade Kingsport and destroy property owned by members of Jehovah sect.
“Our police court threatened if we fine those already arrested. There has been talk of damage to the courthouse. Answer immediately.”
On Tuesday, the newspaper reported that 11 men had been charged with disorderly conduct stemming from the Sunday violence. The courtroom was overfilled, the paper said.
There was no disorder, but three women members of the religious sect, who appeared as prosecuting witnesses, asked for a police escort to their homes.
Bristol’s police chief said the crowd that mobbed the sect’s meeting place Sunday was made up chiefly of young men and women between the ages of 15 and 21.
“The actions of the sect has provoked some agitation recently, not only in Bristol, but in the surrounding section, but I believe those taking part in the street riot were almost entirely local persons,” the chief said. “A good many of out-of-town persons were among the crowd at the sect’s assembly hall.”
By Wednesday, Bristol was quiet. Not a single disorderly act was reported. The Tennessee attorney general also turned down local requests for assistance because the “situation was well under control.”
In October, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, known for distributing printed material door-to-door, published an article criticizing the city for not protecting them. The mayor and police chief said the information was wrong.
“I don’t care what you say about me,” Vance said. “We did all we could to stop the trouble. If we had handled the situation with gloves off, somebody would have been killed. But it seems to me that what you’re doing now is not just handing out religious literature, you’re agitating for more trouble. We’ll do all we can to stop it, but we’re warning you that unless you stop, we’re afraid you are building up more trouble for yourselves.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses said a total of six homes were “invaded” in Bristol during the disorder.