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


BOLTON, Miss.— It was here, in this majority-Black town of 441 people, that Representative Bennie G. Thompson attended a segregated junior high school. It was where his father spent a lifetime working as a mechanic and paying taxes, but never enjoying the right to vote. And it was where the future congressman, in the early 1970s, campaigned for mayor while packing a gun, after receiving threats from white people loath to give up their political power.

So it came as little surprise, to those who know Mr. Thompson well, that he was quick to mention Bolton, Miss., after gaveling to order the first hearing of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack 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,” said 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 is also chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent nearly 30 years on Capitol Hill, but his leadership of the Jan. 6 committee represents his most significant turn in the national spotlight. And it is thematically consistent with a public life that was forged 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,” said State Senator Derrick T. Simmons, a fellow Democrat.

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

“We are supposed to be a democracy,” he said. “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 serious, and almost solemn, tone. He has also ceded much of the spotlight to Representative Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican and vice chair of the committee.

Mr. Thompson and other Democrats surely recognize that a withering critique of Mr. Trump is more powerful coming from a Republican. At the same time, the close alliance that Mr. Thompson appears to have forged with Ms. Cheney has softened his reputation as a fierce partisan reluctant to work with Republicans.

In Mississippi, this reluctance is often attributed to the emotional scars Mr. Thompson carries from his years battling for basic civil rights against 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 running for Congress for the first time, in 1993, Mr. Thompson told The New York Times that a strategy of confrontation, for Black people in Mississippi, “has been one of the main means of survival.”

His activist record dates to his time in junior high, when he was arrested for participating in a demonstration in Jackson after hearing speeches by Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader 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, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was focused on registering Black voters. At Tougaloo, he also met Fannie Lou Hamer, the prominent civil rights activist, and volunteered on her unsuccessful congressional campaign.

He worked briefly after college as a public-school teacher but said his contract was not renewed after he assigned an essay on the topic, “What’s Wrong With Mississippi?” In 1969, he was elected alderman in Bolton, part of a wave of Black officials who were filling local elected office across the South in the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

Two other Black candidates had also won alderman races in Bolton that year. The town clerk, Mr. Thompson said, 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 said, generated eight lawsuits.

Once in office, he inundated federal agencies with letters seeking funding and other support for programs that he hoped would transform the city. He helped found the state’s association of Black mayors, then co-founded its first association of Black county supervisors, building networks and helping others get elected to small local posts along the way.

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

Mr. Thompson became a Hinds County commissioner after challenging the makeup of the commission districts in court. In 1993 he won a special election to fill the congressional seat being vacated by Mike Espy, who was selected as agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton.

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

A few months after the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, the head 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 worried that riots would ensue if a jury acquitted Byron De La Beckwith, the white racist who had killed Mr. Evers and was facing a new murder trial after two juries in the 1960s failed to reach verdicts. (He was eventually convicted in 1994.)

Mr. Thompson’s response letter contained no support for rioters, but it did give a taste of his uncompromising style. He wrote of the “unrestrained violence” that white people had inflicted on Black Americans during slavery and beyond. He mentioned the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the white “murder mobs” that flared in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Miss., during 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 worked on higher education equity issues, opposed Mr. Trump’s border wall and successfully brought large federal spending projects to his district, which includes the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta and the majority-Black city of Jackson.

The congressman, an avid hunter, is back in his district most weekends, taking meetings in his storefront office in Bolton. It is decorated with images of civil rights heroes, photos 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 shows a lifeless 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 town’s volunteer fire chief and a longtime ally of the congressman, gave a tour of the town this week, pointing out the City Hall, expanded fire station and 40-unit public housing complex that Mr. Thompson helped get built.

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

A number of “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” signs were scattered around, but they are most likely a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district has been engineered to be safe for a Black Democrat, leaving Mississippi’s other three districts generally safe for Republicans.

Mr. Thompson said that the committee’s work was among the most important he had engaged in as a politician.

“I want it to benefit this country and the world,” he said. “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.



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