Chairman of Jan. 6 Committee Spent His Profession Defending Voting Rights

BOLTON, Miss.— It was right here, on this majority-Black city of 441 individualsthat Consultant 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 proper 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 individuals loath to surrender their political energy.

So it got here as somewhat 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 US Capitol.

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

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

Mr. Thompson, who can also 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 now important flip within the nationwide highlight. And it’s thematically in step with a public life that was cast in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved by chicanery, intimidation and violence.

“I feel he took Jan. 6 personally, based mostly upon his physique of labor and what he is stood for concerning ensuring individuals have a voice via the poll field, ”mentioned State Senator Derrick T. Simmons, a fellow Democrat.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Thompson mentioned as a lot. For some individuals, they mentioned, the slogan “Make America Nice Once more” seeds like a “canine whistle” evoking a world just like the white-dominated Mississippi he grew up in. 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 presupposed to be a democracy,” he mentioned. “And once we see individuals carrying Accomplice battle flags within the group, that’s the image of slavery and absolute resistance to the rule of regulation. So for me, it was bringing again part of our historical past that none of us needs to be happy with. ”

Along with his avuncular white beard and commanding voice, Mr. Thompson, 74, has established the committee’s severe, and virtually solemn, tone. He has additionally ceded a lot of the highlight to Consultant 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. On the similar time, the shut alliance that Mr. Thompson seems to have cast with Ms. Cheney has softened his status as a fierce partisan reluctant to work with Republicans.

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

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

When he was operating for Congress for the primary time, in 1993, Mr. Thompson advised The New York Occasions {that a} technique of confrontation, for Black individuals in Mississippi, “has been one of many fundamental technique of survival.”

His activist file dates to his time in junior excessive, when he was arrested for collaborating in an illustration in Jackson 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,” Mr. Thompson recalled in a 1974 interview. “It was principally about why are black people those that do not have good jobs, why are the black people those that do not have first rate housing?”

He enrolled at Tougaloo Faculty, in Jackson, then a hotbed of antiracist organizing, becoming a member of the Scholar 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 trainer however mentioned his contract was not renewed after he assigned an essay on the subject, “What’s Improper With Mississippi?” In 1969, he was elected alderman in Bolton, a part of a wave of Black officers who had been filling a neighborhood elected workplace throughout the South within the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

Two different Black candidates additionally received alderman races in Bolton that yr. The city clerk, Mr. Thompson mentioned, 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, they mentioned, generated eight lawsuits.

As soon as in workplace, they inundated federal companies with letters searching for funding and different assist for packages that they hoped would remodel 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 most likely did extra to carry in regards to the election of Blacks to the native political workplace than anyone,” mentioned Danny E. Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime good friend of Mr. Thompson’s.

Mr. Thompson turned 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 President Invoice Clinton.

The yr earlier than he went to Congress, an incident unfolded that not too long ago prompted Consultant Matt Gaetz, the hard-right Trump supporter from Florida, to falsely declare that Mr. Thompson “actively cheer-led riots within the ’90s.”

Just a few months after the riots that adopted the 1992 acquittal of 4 Los Angeles cops within the beating of Rodney King, the pinnacle of the Hinds County Bar Affiliation, Harold D. Miller Jr., wrote to Mr. Thompson requested him to “take a stand in favor of the precept of regulation and towards the philosophy that unwarranted criticism and riots are acceptable responses to displeasure with a judicial choice.” Mr. Miller was anxious 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 assist for rioters, but it surely did give a style of his uncompromising model. 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, Miss., Throughout Reconstruction.

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

In Congress, Mr. Thompson has labored on larger schooling fairness points, against 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 now weekends, taking conferences in his storefront workplace in Bolton. It’s adorned with photos of civil rights heroes, images 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 certain is a stretch of asphalt. “The one factor in the midst 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 to the Metropolis Corridor, an expanded hearth station and a 40-unit public housing complicated that Mr. Thompson helped get constructed.

“I don’t contemplate him being indignant,” Mr. Robinson mentioned. “The purpose is that he is simply attempting to get issues achieved.”

Various “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” indicators had been scattered round, however they’re now probably a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district has been engineered to be protected for the Black Democrat, leaving Mississippi’s different three districts usually protected for Republicans.

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

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

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

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