‘He Took Jan. 6 Personally ‘

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), Chair of each the committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol and the Home Homeland Safety Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 16, 2022. (AndrŽ Chung / The New York Instances)

BOLTON, Miss.— It was right here, on this majority-Black city of 441 individuals, that Rep. Bennie 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 fitting to vote. And it was the place the longer term congressman, within the early Seventies, campaigned for mayor whereas packing a gun, after receiving threats from white individuals loath to surrender their political energy.

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

“I am from part of the nation the place individuals justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” mentioned Thompson, the committee chair. “I’m reminded of that darkish historical past as I hear voices as we speak try to justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021. ”

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Moments later, Thompson accused former President Donald Trump of getting “spurred a mob of home enemies of the Structure to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”

Thompson, who can be chair of the Home Homeland Safety Committee, has spent practically 30 years on Capitol Hill, however his management of the Jan. 6 committee represents his most important flip within the nationwide highlight. And it’s thematically in keeping with a public life that was solid in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved by chicanery, intimidation and violence.

“I feel he took Jan. 6 personally, primarily based upon his physique of labor and what he’s stood for concerning ensuring individuals have a voice by way of the poll field, ”mentioned state Sen. Derrick Simmons, a fellow Democrat.

In an interview Friday, Thompson mentioned as a lot. For some individuals, he mentioned, the slogan “Make America Nice Once more” appeared like a “canine whistle” evoking a world just like the white-dominated Mississippi by which he grew up. He mentioned he was disturbed by the gallows that protesters introduced for Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6 and by the Accomplice flags within the crowd.

“We’re imagined to be a democracy,” he mentioned. “And after we see individuals carrying Accomplice battle flags within the group, that is the image of slavery and absolute resistance to the rule of legislation. So for me, it was bringing again part of our historical past that none of us ought to be pleased with. ”

Together with his avuncular white beard and commanding voice, Thompson, 74, has established the committee’s severe, and nearly solemn, tone. He has additionally ceded a lot of the highlight to Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., Vice chair of the committee.

Thompson and different Democrats certainly acknowledge {that a} withering critique of Trump is extra highly effective coming from a Republican. On the similar time, the shut alliance that Thompson seems to have solid with Cheney has softened his fame as a fierce partisan reluctant to work with Republicans.

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

Thompson “is all about partisanship,” reporter Adam Lynch wrote in 2006 within the Jackson Free Press, a liberal newspaper. “He is very a lot a Liberal Democrat with no predilection for smiling tolerantly on the different facet.”

When he was working for Congress for the primary time in 1993, Thompson instructed The New York Instances {that a} technique of confrontation, for Black individuals in Mississippi, “has been one of many most important technique of survival.”

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

“He was speaking stuff that many individuals felt however didn’t have the nerve sufficient to speak,” Thompson recalled in a 1974 interview. “It was principally about why are Black people those that don’t have good jobs; why are Black people those that do not have respectable housing? ”

He enrolled at Tougaloo Faculty, in Jackson, then a hotbed of anti-racist organizing, becoming a member of the Pupil Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which was targeted 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 faculty as a public college trainer however mentioned his contract was not renewed after he was assigned an essay on the subject, “What’s Fallacious With Mississippi?” In 1969, he was elected alderman in Bolton, a part of a wave of Black officers who have been filling native elected workplaces throughout the South within the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

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

As soon as in workplace, he flooded federal companies with letters looking for funding and different assist for packages that he hoped would rework 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 most likely did extra to convey concerning the election of Blacks to native political workplace than anyone,” mentioned Danny Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime buddy of Thompson’s.

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

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

A couple of months after the riots that adopted the 1992 acquittal of 4 Los Angeles cops within the beating of Rodney King, the top of the Hinds County Bar Affiliation, Harold Miller Jr., wrote to Thompson asking him to “take a stand in favor of the precept of legislation and in opposition to the philosophy that unwarranted criticism and riots are acceptable responses to displeasure with a judicial resolution. ” Miller was apprehensive that riots would ensue if a jury acquitted Byron De La Beckwith, the white racist who had killed Evers and was going through a brand new homicide trial after two juries within the Nineteen Sixties failed to succeed in verdicts. (He was ultimately convicted in 1994.)

Thompson’s response letter contained no assist for rioters, however it did give a style of his uncompromising fashion. He wrote of the “unrestrained violence” that white individuals had inflicted on Black Individuals throughout slavery and past. He talked about the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the white “homicide mobs” that flared in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi, throughout Reconstruction.

“Earlier than 1968 there have been no African elected officers in Hinds County,” he wrote. “What did the Hinds County Bar do to deal with this injustice?”

In Congress, Thompson has labored on greater training fairness points, opposed Trump’s border wall and efficiently introduced massive federal spending initiatives 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 workplace in Bolton. It’s adorned with photos of civil rights heroes, images of 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 one factor center of the highway,” it says, “is yellow paint and a useless armadillo.”

Willie Earl Robinson, the city’s volunteer hearth chief and a longtime ally of the congressman, gave a tour of the city this week, declaring town corridor, an expanded hearth station and a 40-unit public housing complicated that Thompson helped get constructed.

“I do not take into account him offended,” Robinson mentioned. “The purpose is, he is simply making an attempt to get issues completed.”

Quite a lot of “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” indicators have been scattered round, however they’re most definitely a formality. Thompson’s district has been engineered to be protected for a Black Democrat, leaving Mississippi’s different three districts usually protected for Republicans.

Thompson mentioned that the committee’s work was among the many most vital he had engaged in as a politician.

“I need it to profit this nation and the world,” he mentioned. “As a result of we nonetheless, in my humble opinion, are nonetheless the best nation on the earth. We simply had a hiccup on Jan. 6. And now we have to repair it. ”

© 2022 The New York Instances Firm

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