U.S. News

Chairman of Jan. 6 Committee Spent His Career Protecting Voting Rights

BOLTON, Miss.— It was right here, on this majority-Black town of 441 people, that Representative Bennie G. Thompson attended a segregated junior highschool. It was the place his father spent a lifetime working as a mechanic and paying taxes, however by no means having fun with the precise to vote. And it was the place the long run congressman, within the early Seventies, campaigned for mayor whereas packing a gun, after receiving threats from white folks loath to surrender their political energy.

So it got here as little shock, to those that know Mr. Thompson effectively, that he was fast to say Bolton, Miss., after gaveling to order the primary listening to of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” stated Mr. Thompson, the committee chair. “I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021.”

Moments later, Mr. Thompson accused former President Donald J. Trump of having “spurred a mob of domestic enemies of the Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”

Mr. Thompson, who can also be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent practically 30 years on Capitol Hill, however his management of the Jan. 6 committee represents his most vital flip within the nationwide highlight. And it’s thematically according to a public life that was cast in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved by chicanery, intimidation and violence.

“I think that he took Jan. 6 personally, based upon his body of work and what he’s stood for regarding making sure people have a voice through the ballot box,” stated State Senator Derrick T. Simmons, a fellow Democrat.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Thompson stated as a lot. For some folks, he stated, the slogan “Make America Great Again” appeared like a “dog whistle” evoking a world just like the white-dominated Mississippi he grew up in. He stated he was disturbed by the gallows that protesters introduced for Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6 and by the Confederate flags within the crowd.

“We are supposed to be a democracy,” he stated. “And when we see people carrying Confederate battle flags in the group, that’s the symbol of slavery and absolute resistance to the rule of law. So for me, it was bringing back a part of our history that none of us should be proud of.”

With his avuncular white beard and commanding voice, Mr. Thompson, 74, has established the committee’s critical, and nearly solemn, tone. He has additionally ceded a lot of the highlight to Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican and vice chair of the committee.

Mr. Thompson and different Democrats absolutely acknowledge {that a} withering critique of Mr. Trump is extra highly effective coming from a Republican. At the identical time, the (*6*) that Mr. Thompson seems to have cast with Ms. Cheney has softened his popularity as a fierce partisan reluctant to work with Republicans.

In Mississippi, this reluctance is usually attributed to the emotional scars Mr. Thompson carries from his years battling for primary civil rights in opposition to white Mississippians who migrated to the Republican Party after President Lyndon B. Johnson secured passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Mr. Thompson “is all about partisanship,” the reporter Adam Lynch wrote in 2006 in The Jackson Free Press, a liberal newspaper. “He’s very much a liberal Democrat with no predilection for smiling tolerantly at the other side.”

When he was working for Congress for the primary time, in 1993, Mr. Thompson informed The New York Times {that a} technique of confrontation, for Black folks in Mississippi, “has been one of the main means of survival.”

His activist file dates to his time in junior excessive, when he was arrested for collaborating in an indication in Jackson after listening to speeches by Medgar Evers, the civil rights chief who was assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963.

“He was talking stuff that many people felt, but didn’t have the nerve enough to talk,” Mr. Thompson recalled in a 1974 interview. “It was basically about why are Black folks the ones that don’t have good jobs, why are Black folks the ones that don’t have decent housing?”

He enrolled at Tougaloo College, in Jackson, then a hotbed of antiracist organizing, becoming a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was centered on registering Black voters. At Tougaloo, he additionally met Fannie Lou Hamer, the distinguished civil rights activist, and volunteered on her unsuccessful congressional marketing campaign.

He labored briefly after school as a public-school instructor however stated his contract was not renewed after he assigned an essay on the subject, “What’s Wrong With Mississippi?” In 1969, he was elected alderman in Bolton, half of a wave of Black officers who had been filling native elected office throughout the South within the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

Two different Black candidates had additionally gained alderman races in Bolton that year. The city clerk, Mr. Thompson stated, initially refused to work with them, addressing them with a racist slur. In 1973, white residents challenged Mr. Thompson’s election as mayor, accusing him of illegally registering out-of-town voters. The election, he stated, generated eight lawsuits.

Once in office, he inundated federal companies with letters in search of funding and different help for applications that he hoped would rework the town. He helped discovered the state’s affiliation of Black mayors, then co-founded its first affiliation of Black county supervisors, constructing networks and serving to others get elected to small native posts alongside the way in which.

“He probably did more to bring about the election of Blacks to local political office than anybody,” stated Danny E. Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime good friend of Mr. Thompson’s.

Mr. Thompson grew to become a Hinds County commissioner after difficult the make-up of the fee districts in court docket. In 1993 he gained a particular election to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Mike Espy, who was chosen as agriculture secretary below President Bill Clinton.

The year earlier than he went to Congress, an incident unfolded that just lately prompted Representative Matt Gaetz, the hard-right Trump supporter from Florida, to falsely declare that Mr. Thompson “actively cheer-led riots in the ’90s.”

A number of months after the riots that adopted the 1992 acquittal of 4 Los Angeles law enforcement officials within the beating of Rodney King, the top of the Hinds County Bar Association, Harold D. Miller Jr., wrote to Mr. Thompson asking him to “take a stand in favor of the principle of law and against the philosophy that unwarranted criticism and riots are acceptable responses to displeasure with a judicial decision.” Mr. Miller was apprehensive that riots would ensue if a jury acquitted Byron De La Beckwith, the white racist who had killed Mr. Evers and was dealing with a brand new homicide trial after two juries within the Nineteen Sixties failed to achieve verdicts. (He was ultimately convicted in 1994.)

Mr. Thompson’s response letter contained no help for rioters, nevertheless it did give a style of his uncompromising fashion. He wrote of the “unrestrained violence” that white folks had inflicted on Black Americans throughout slavery and past. He talked about the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the white “murder mobs” that flared in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Miss., throughout Reconstruction.

“Before 1968 there were no African elected officials in Hinds County,” he wrote. “What did the Hinds County Bar do to address this injustice?”

In Congress, Mr. Thompson has labored on larger schooling fairness points, opposed Mr. Trump’s border wall and efficiently introduced massive federal spending tasks to his district, which incorporates the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta and the majority-Black metropolis of Jackson.

The congressman, an avid hunter, is again in his district most weekends, taking conferences in his storefront office in Bolton. It is embellished with photos of civil rights heroes, pictures of Mr. Thompson on hog and rabbit hunts and the stuffed heads of animals he has shot.

His governing philosophy is spelled out on a prominently displayed poster that reveals a dull varmint on a stretch of asphalt. “The only thing middle of the road,” it says, “is yellow paint and a dead armadillo.”

Willie Earl Robinson, the city’s volunteer fireplace chief and a longtime ally of the congressman, gave a tour of the city this week, declaring the City Hall, expanded fireplace station and 40-unit public housing advanced that Mr. Thompson helped get constructed.

“I don’t consider him being angry,” Mr. Robinson stated. “The point is that he’s just trying to get things done.”

A quantity of “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” indicators had been scattered round, however they’re more than likely a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district has been engineered to be protected for a Black Democrat, leaving Mississippi’s different three districts typically protected for Republicans.

Mr. Thompson stated that the committee’s work was among the many most essential he had engaged in as a politician.

“I want it to benefit this country and the world,” he stated. “Because we still, in my humble opinion, are still the greatest country in the world. We just had a hiccup on Jan. 6. And we have to fix it.”

Richard Fausset reported from Bolton, and Luke Broadwater from Washington.

Back to top button