A longtime Mississippi politician and champion of the interests of veterans, Gillespie V. “Sonny” Montgomery was born on 5 August 1920 in Meridian. His father, Gillespie Montgomery Sr., worked in the gasoline and oil wholesale business but suffered from tuberculosis and died when his son was ten. Although Sonny’s mother, Emily Jones Montgomery, remarried about two years later, the family went through a hard time during the early years of the Great Depression. They moved around Mississippi in search of jobs, and Sonny frequently changed schools. With the financial aid of his wealthy great-aunt, Alice Pope, he eventually enrolled in McCallie School, a military boarding school in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Montgomery had long been fascinated by the military, and he was inspired by the drilling and battalion parades at McCallie. His family had a strong military tradition. His great-grandfather, Col. W. B. Montgomery, ran a Confederate ammunition factory in Montgomery, Alabama, before serving in the Mississippi state legislature in the late 1890s.
After completing high school, Montgomery enrolled at Mississippi State College, majoring in business and joining the school’s Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He graduated in 1943 and served as a lieutenant in the 12th Armored Division in Europe, earning medals including the Bronze Star for Valor for his World War II service.
Montgomery returned from the war and worked as an insurance agent and a car salesman. He also joined the Mississippi National Guard and was sent to Korea in late 1951. In 1956, he won election to the Mississippi State Senate, building on the network of friends he had made by traveling to sell insurance and beating his opponent by fewer than one hundred votes. In May 1961 his National Guard unit escorted a group of Freedom Riders from the Alabama border to Jackson.
In 1966 Montgomery was elected as a Democrat to the US House of Representatives, filling the seat of Republican Prentiss Walker, who was challenging James Eastland for the US Senate. During his first years in Congress, Montgomery served on the Veterans Affairs Committee and the Agricultural Committee. He served as chair of the House Select Committee on US Involvement in Southeast Asia, which toured South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to evaluate the military situation. In 1975 Montgomery chaired the Select Committee on Americans Missing in Action in Southeast Asia. By then, he had also been appointed to the Armed Services Committee.
In 1980 Montgomery retired from the National Guard with the rank of major general. A year later, he became chair of the Veterans Affairs Committee. In his new capacity, Montgomery started working on a revamped GI Bill, which passed after much debate in 1984. The new law sought primarily to improve the recruitment and retention of quality army personnel by providing educational assistance to active-duty soldiers as well as to members of the National Guard and the reserves. Officially labeled the Educational Assistance Act of 1984, the law is more commonly known as the Montgomery GI Bill, which Montgomery considered a great honor. Another of Montgomery’s landmark achievements was the Department of Veterans Affairs Act, which he cosponsored with Rep. Gerald Solomon of New York. The bill, which went into effect on 15 March 1989, turned the old Veterans Administration into an official cabinet department. Pres. George H. W. Bush offered Montgomery the position of secretary of the new department, but he decided to remain in the House.
As a conservative southern Democrat, Montgomery was often at odds with the political agenda of his own party. During the Reagan years, he was an active member of the House’s boll weevil faction, a group of conservative Democrats who supported the Republican administration’s economic plans, particularly the reduction of the federal income tax. In 1995 Montgomery ardently backed a constitutional amendment to ban the desecration of the American flag.
Montgomery retired from Congress in 1997. During his last session, Congress voted to name the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Jackson in his honor. Montgomery subsequently ran a Washington-based lobbying firm, the Montgomery Group, before returning to Mississippi in 2004. A year later, Pres. George W. Bush awarded Montgomery the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Montgomery died on 12 May 2006. On the day of his funeral, President Bush ordered US flags to be flown at half-staff to honor “Mr. Veteran.”
- Sonny Montgomery, Sonny Montgomery: The Veteran’s Champion (2003)
- Crystal O’Connell, G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery: Democratic Representative from Mississippi (1972)
- Washington Post (13 May 2006)