‘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 Occasions)

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 appropriate to vote. And it was the place the longer term congressman, within the early Nineteen 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 effectively, 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 at the moment 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 vital flip within the nationwide highlight. And it’s thematically in line 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’s stood for relating to 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 during 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 presupposed 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 needs to be happy with. ”

Along 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 absolutely 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 cast with Cheney has softened his popularity 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 primary civil rights in opposition to white Mississippians who migrated to the Republican Occasion 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 aspect.”

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

His activist report dates to his time in junior excessive, when he was arrested for taking part 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 mainly about why are Black of us those that don’t have good jobs; why are Black of us those that do not have first rate housing? ”

He enrolled at Tougaloo Faculty, in Jackson, then a hotbed of anti-racist organizing, becoming a member of the Scholar 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 school as a public faculty trainer however mentioned his contract was not renewed after he was 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 native elected places of work throughout the South within the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

Two different Black candidates had additionally gained alderman races in Bolton that 12 months. 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 in search of funding and different assist for applications that he hoped would remodel 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 deliver concerning the election of Blacks to native political workplace than anyone,” mentioned Danny Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime buddy of Thompson’s.

Thompson turned a Hinds County commissioner after difficult the make-up of the fee districts in courtroom. In 1993 he gained 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 12 months earlier than he went to Congress, an incident unfolded that not too long ago 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 frightened 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, 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, 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 handle this injustice?”

In Congress, Thompson has labored on larger training fairness points, opposed 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 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 exhibits 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 contemplate him indignant,” Robinson mentioned. “The purpose is, he is simply attempting to get issues achieved.”

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

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

“I need it to learn 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 we’ve to repair it. ”

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