Thomas Jefferson (Tom or T. J.) Gentry Jr. (1915–1982)
Thomas Jefferson (Tom or T. J.) Gentry Jr. served two terms as Arkansas’s attorney general (1953–1956) and, during his tenure, was the state’s most influential racially moderate elected official. He helped guide the state’s initial response to the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, putting the state on an early path that won accolades from national Black press and condemnations from segregationists. Gentry’s (and the state’s) moderation, though, could not survive the rise of massive resistance that followed the Arkansas congressional delegation’s signing of the Southern Manifesto in March 1956. He would never win statewide office again, and a once promising political career had been derailed.
Tom Gentry was born in Malvern (Hot Spring County) on April 3, 1915, to Thomas Jefferson Gentry and Julia Lamb Gentry. His father was a conductor for the Missouri Pacific Railroad and a member of the Brotherhood of Railway Trainmen. The family moved to Little Rock (Pulaski County), where Gentry completed high school. He then attended the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County). After graduating from the law program in 1937, Gentry moved back to Little Rock and began practicing law. Gentry won his first elected position in April 1940, when Little Rock voters selected him to represent the Fifth Ward on the Little Rock City Council. His tenure on the council, though, was cut short by the outbreak of World War II. He entered the U.S. Army as a lieutenant and left as a lieutenant colonel, spending most of the war in the Judge Advocate General’s Corps in the European theater.
Upon his return to Little Rock after the war, Gentry resumed his legal practice, with Teamsters Local 878 becoming his most important client. He was also elected Little Rock’s city attorney in April 1946 and reelected two years later. His 1950 campaign to become Pulaski and Perry County prosecutor ended in defeat. Soon after, he was called back into the army as the nation mobilized for the Korean War.
Returning to Little Rock in 1952, Gentry entered the race for attorney general. He campaigned as an outsider, declaring that he would defend the working people of the state against entrenched economic interests. He pointed to a suit he initiated as city attorney that forced Southwestern Bell to give nearly $1.8 million as a rebate to Arkansas customers. Such rhetoric resonated with voters, and he easily won the election.
As attorney general, Gentry continued battling the state’s most powerful economic interests. He filed suit to prevent Arkansas Power and Light (AP&L) from raising rates, investigated Lion Oil for fixing prices at the pump, and tried to shut down illegal gambling in Hot Springs (Garland County). Like previous attorneys general, Gentry kept a private practice on the side. But instead of working for utility companies and banks, Gentry represented Teamsters Local 878, whose president, Odell Smith, was the architect of a Black-labor political alliance that was becoming a force in state politics.
Gentry’s first term as attorney general so angered the state’s business community, especially those close to AP&L, that it recruited James D. (Jim) Johnson, an ambitious and charismatic state senator from Crossett (Ashley County), to run against him in 1954. Johnson, who later emerged as the state’s most prominent segregationist, centered his challenge on Gentry’s continued representation of the Teamsters, ignoring Gentry’s early response to the Brown ruling. Voters, however, returned Gentry to office for a second term.
In the wake of the Brown decision, Gentry, as the state’s chief legal officer, put Arkansas on a “moderate” course. He turned down invitations to meetings organized by attorneys general in other parts the South to devise strategies to circumvent the Supreme Court’s decision. He said, “Desegregation has been declared the law of the land and we are going to have to abide by it.” Like some African American leaders, he advocated a gradual approach, suggesting that integration should proceed quickly in those parts of the state with small Black populations but take a bit more time and deliberation in areas with larger numbers of African Americans. When filing the state’s Brown II brief (in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s call for suggestions as how to implement its Brown decision), Gentry distinguished himself from the other southern attorneys general by refusing to condemn the Court, saying, “Nothing contained in this brief is intended to bring into question the correctness of the [Brown] ruling.”
The state’s acceptance of the legitimacy of the Brown ruling not only distinguished Arkansas from the states of the Deep South but also undergirded the early progress made in some areas. The state did not interfere when districts like Charleston (Franklin County) and Fayetteville began to desegregate in 1954. Moreover, responding to a request in the summer of 1955 from the presidents of the state’s white undergraduate institutions for legal advice about how to respond if Black students requested admission, Gentry explained several things that Brown meant: its prohibition of segregation in “public education” applied to state-supported colleges and universities, it invalidated the state law mandating segregation at their institutions, and it required them to admit Black students who were otherwise qualified. With this guidance, several undergraduate institutions opened their doors to Black students, some with more enthusiasm than others.
Gentry’s actions helped the state win praise from Black newspapers throughout the nation for its early response to the Brown decision. The Chicago Defender called Arkansas “the one bright spot in the South.” The Pittsburgh Courier announced, “The school desegregation picture in Arkansas is favorable. The state is setting the pace for the rest of the South.” Gentry even earned the grudging respect of the state’s more radical Arkansas State Press for announcing the state’s acceptance of the Brown decision.
Arkansas’s segregationists, not surprisingly, blamed Gentry for the integration that had already taken place. They considered Gentry to be the most “pro-Negro” elected official in the state and perhaps the entire South. The segregationist monthly Arkansas Faith denounced him as “the fair-haired boy of the left wing liberals” and a stooge of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The magazine detailed his misdeeds: “The ink had hardly begun to dry on the infamous ‘decision’ of the Supreme Court [in Brown] before he offered his ‘opinion’ to the state college heads that they ‘must integrate.’…When [during the Brown II hearings] all of the other Attorney Generals of the southern states declared themselves, in no uncertain terms, as being unalterably opposed to integration in schools, or elsewhere, Gentry chose to walk alone.”
Gentry planned to run for governor in 1956, challenging incumbent Orval Faubus. Even though Gentry and Faubus were both considered to be racial moderates and came from the same faction within the Arkansas Democratic Party, the two men disliked one another. They had clashed over a number of issues, most importantly the illegal gambling in Hot Springs that, according to rumors, funded Faubus’s political operations. The Arkansas Democrat speculated that Gentry was the only candidate who stood a chance of beating Faubus.
The progress toward integration that Gentry had helped to engineer (along with his ambition for the governor’s office) came to an end in March 1956 when Arkansas’s entire congressional delegation signed the Southern Manifesto. Before March 1956, most white Arkansans certainly disliked the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to prohibit state-mandated segregation, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that they generally accepted Gentry’s position that desegregation was the law of the land and would eventually have to be implemented. But by signing on to the Southern Manifesto, Arkansas’s most powerful and respected politicians endorsed very different ideas—that the Brown decision was illegitimate and that states and their citizens could (and should) work to prevent its implementation. These ideas were foundational to massive resistance and led to the desegregation crisis at Central High School.
By signing the Manifesto, the state’s congressional delegation, in effect, knee-capped Gentry and those officials promoting obedience to the law and working to make sure that the gradual integration of the state’s schools proceeded peacefully. There was no longer room for racial moderates in Arkansas politics, and Gentry gave up his gubernatorial bid. Gentry also decided not to seek another term as attorney general and left office at the end of 1956. He returned to his private law practice and continued working with Odell Smith, who was now the president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO.
It was in concert with Odell Smith that Gentry made his last contribution to the fight against the state’s segregationists. In 1958, Jim Johnson and his followers used the initiative process to put on the fall ballot a “States’ Rights” amendment designed to strengthen the State Sovereignty Commission by mandating its budget, empowering it to change voting qualifications and supervise registration, allowing it to take almost any steps deemed necessary to protect racial segregation, and declaring that its decisions could not be appealed to the judiciary. In the climate surrounding the Central High crisis, most commentators predicted easy ratification.
Smith mobilized labor’s resources against the “States’ Rights” amendment and brought in Gentry to do the legal work. Gentry asked the Arkansas Supreme Court to throw the proposed amendment off the ballot on the grounds of title insufficiency. He explained that the amendment basically created a fourth branch of state government that operated outside of the normal system of checks and balances—something that was not made clear in the title. The Supreme Court agreed, and the greatest threat to Black voting since before World War I was defeated.
In the years after the Central High crisis, Gentry continued to practice law, but his forays into state politics met with little success. In both 1962 and 1966, he lost bids to become a member of the Arkansas Supreme Court. In 1965, his old rival Orval Faubus appointed him Pulaski County circuit judge, but he served only a short time before launching his campaign for the high court.
Gentry died on February 21, 1982, at the age of sixty-six. Survivors included his wife, Mary Hoban Gentry; two sons, Andrew and William; and three daughters, Marsha, Julie, and Virginia.
For additional information:
“Big Majorities for Pension Fund Levies.” Arkansas Gazette, April 2, 1941, p. 1
Brown, Gordon. “Arkansas Waits on Court Decision.” Camden News, April 18, 1955, p. 2.
“Cherry Wins Nomination; Gentry Victor Over Barton; Chambers Gets Party Post.” Arkansas Gazette, August 13, 1952, p. 1.
Claude Carpenter interview with Roy Reed, August 1, 1990. Box 19, file 22, Roy Reed Papers. Special Collections. University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Copeland, Curt. “Some Differences between Arkansas and Mississippi.” Arkansas Faith, December 1955, pp. 21–23.
Dygard, Tom. “Racial Integration Looming as Political Issue in State.” Arkansas Democrat, November 10, 1955, p. 27.
“Editorial.” Arkansas Faith, December 1955, pp. 4–5, 24.
“For Gradual Integration.” Arkansas State Press, November 19, 1954, pp. 1, 4.
Haines-Saine, Renee. “Hot Springs Gambling Kept City Coffers Filled.” Arkansas Democrat, March 25, 1980, p. 5.
Kennedy, John. “A Dim View of Each Other” (cartoon), Arkansas Democrat, November 13, 1955, p. 12b.
“Only 413 Votes Cast at Election.” Arkansas Gazette, April 3, 1946, p. 13.
Pierce, Michael. “The City Manager System and the Collapse of Racial Moderation in Little Rock.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 73 (Summer 2019): 166–205.
———. “Odell Smith, Teamsters Local 878, and Civil Rights Unionism in Little Rock, 1943–1965.” Journal of Southern History (November 2018): 925–958.
Phil Stratton to Jim Johnson, November 9, 1955. Box 2, file 2, Jim Johnson Collection. Arkansas State Archives, Little Rock.
Ratcliffe, Robert M., and A. M. Rivera Jr. “Arkansas: ‘We Will Obey the Law.’” Pittsburgh Courier, December 25, 1954, pp. 1, 4.
“State Supported White Colleges on Path to Peaceful Integration.” Blytheville Courier, August 5, 1955, p. 1.
“Thomas J. Gentry, Ex-Attorney General, Dead at Age of 66.” Arkansas Democrat, February 22, 1982, p. 4B.
“Thomas Jefferson Gentry.” Arkansas Gazette, September 28, 1945, p. 8.
Valachovic, Ernest. “States Rights Amendment, 3 Others Killed.” Arkansas Gazette, September 30, 1958, p. 1.
———. “Supreme Court Urged to Kill Ballot Proposal.” Arkansas Gazette, September 23, 1958, pp. 1, 2.
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated: 12/09/2021