‘He Took Jan. 6 Personally’

 

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 best 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 properly, 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 part of the nation the place folks 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 at this time 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 Constitution to march down the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”

Mr. Thompson, who can be chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent almost 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 per a public life that was cast in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved by chicanery, intimidation and violence.

“I believe that he took Jan. 6 personally, primarily based upon his physique of labor and what he’s stood for relating to ensuring folks have a voice by means of 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 folks, he mentioned, the slogan “Make America Great Again” appeared 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 Confederate flags within the crowd.

“We are presupposed to be a democracy,” he mentioned. “And once we see folks carrying Confederate battle flags within the group, that’s 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 happy with.”

With his avuncular white beard and commanding voice, Mr. Thompson, 74, has established the committee’s critical, and virtually 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 certainly acknowledge {that a} withering critique of Mr. Trump is extra highly effective coming from a Republican. At the identical time, the close alliance that Mr. Thompson seems to have cast with Ms. 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 Mr. Thompson carries from his years battling for fundamental 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 a lot a liberal Democrat with no predilection for smiling tolerantly on the different facet.”

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

His activist document dates to his time in junior excessive, when he was arrested for taking part 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 mainly about why are Black people those that don’t have good jobs, why are Black people those that don’t have first rate 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 targeted on registering Black voters. At Tougaloo, he additionally met Fannie Lou Hamer, the outstanding civil rights activist, and volunteered on her unsuccessful congressional marketing campaign.

He labored briefly after faculty as a public-school instructor however mentioned 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, a part of a wave of Black officers who have been filling native elected workplace 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, 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, he mentioned, generated eight lawsuits.

Once in workplace, he inundated federal businesses with letters looking for funding and different assist 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 most likely did extra to convey concerning the election of Blacks to native political workplace than anyone,” mentioned Danny E. Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime pal of Mr. Thompson’s.

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

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

A number of 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 Association, Harold D. Miller Jr., wrote to Mr. 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 choice.” 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 going through 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, nevertheless it did give a style of his uncompromising type. 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 “homicide mobs” that flared in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Miss., throughout Reconstruction.

“Before 1968 there have been no African 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 increased training fairness points, opposed Mr. 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 is adorned with photos of civil rights heroes, photographs 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 exhibits a dull varmint on a stretch of asphalt. “The solely factor center of the street,” it says, “is yellow paint and a lifeless 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, stating the City Hall, expanded hearth station and 40-unit public housing advanced that Mr. Thompson helped get constructed.

“I don’t contemplate him being offended,” Mr. Robinson mentioned. “The level is that he’s simply attempting to get issues accomplished.”

Quite a few “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” indicators have been scattered round, however they’re probably a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district has been engineered to be protected for a 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 essential he had engaged in as a politician.

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

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


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