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

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BOLTON, Mississippi—It was right here, on this majority-black metropolis of 441, that Rep. Bennie G. Thompson attended a segregated highschool. It was there that his father spent his whole life 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 individuals who have been reluctant to relinquish their political energy.

So those that know Thompson nicely weren’t shocked that he was fast to say Bolton, Mississippi, after calling for the primary listening to of the committee investigating the Jan. 6 assault on the US Capitol to be ordered.

“I am from part of the nation the place individuals justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynchings,” mentioned Mr. Thompson, chairman of the committee. “I’m reminded of that darkish historical past once I hear voices at the moment attempting to justify the actions of the insurgents on January 6, 2021.”

Moments later, Thompson accused former President Donald J. Trump of getting “inspired a mess of inner enemies of the Structure to march on Capitol Hill and subvert American democracy.”

Mr. Thompson, who can be chairman of the Home Homeland Safety Committee, has spent practically 30 years on Capitol Hill, however his management of the January 6 committee represents his most vital shift within the nationwide highlight. . And it’s thematically in line with a public life that was solid in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved by way of trickery, intimidation and violence.

“I feel he took Jan. 6 personally, based mostly on his work and what he is stood for when it comes to ensuring individuals have a voice on the poll field,” mentioned state Sen. Derrick T. Simmons, additionally a Democrat.

In an interview on Friday, Mr. Thompson mentioned the identical factor. To 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 that he was fearful concerning the gallows that the protesters introduced for the vice chairman. Mike Pence on January 6 and subsequent to the Accomplice flags within the crowd.

“We’re imagined 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 outright resistance to the rule of regulation. So for me, it was bringing again part of our historical past that none of us must be happy with.”

Together with his fatherly white beard and commanding voice, Mr. Thompson, 74, has set the intense, virtually solemn tone of the committee. He has additionally given a lot of the highlight to Rep. Liz Cheney, the Republican from Wyoming and the committee’s vice chair.

Thompson and different Democrats absolutely acknowledge {that a} withering criticism of Trump is extra highly effective if it comes from a Republican. On the similar time, the shut alliance that Thompson seems to have solid with Cheney has softened his repute as a fierce supporter reluctant to work with Republicans.

In Mississippi, this reluctance is usually attributed to the emotional scars Thompson bears from his years of preventing for fundamental civil rights towards white Mississippians who migrated to the Republican Occasion after President Lyndon B. Johnson handed the invoice. the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Mr. Thompson “is about partisanship,” 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 tolerantly smiling on the different aspect.”

When he first ran for Congress in 1993, Thompson informed The New York Instances {that a} technique of confrontation for blacks in Mississippi “has been one of many main technique of survival.”

His historical past as an activist dates again to his time in highschool, when he was arrested for taking part in a rally 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 about issues that lots of people felt, however did not have the braveness to speak about,” Thompson recalled in a 1974 interview. “Principally, it was about why black individuals haven’t got good jobs, why Are blacks those who haven’t got respectable housing?

He enrolled at Tougaloo School in Jackson, then a hotbed of anti-racist organizing, and joined the Scholar Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which centered on registering black voters. In Tougaloo, he additionally met Fannie Lou Hamer, the famous civil rights activist, and volunteered for her unsuccessful marketing campaign for Congress.

He briefly labored 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 Improper with Mississippi?” In 1969, he was elected to a Bolton councillor, a part of a wave of black officers who have been taking on native elected workplace throughout the South within the wake of the Voting Rights Act.

Two different black candidates had additionally gained elections for Bolton councilors that yr. The town clerk, Thompson mentioned, initially refused to work with them and addressed them with a racist slur. In 1973, white residents contested Mr. 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 help for applications he hoped would remodel the town. He helped discovered the state affiliation of black mayors, then co-founded his first affiliation of black county supervisors, constructing networks and serving to others get elected to small native places of work alongside the best way.

“He most likely did greater than anybody else to get black individuals elected to native political workplace,” mentioned Danny E. Cupit, a trial legal professional and a longtime buddy of Thompson’s.

Mr. Thompson turned Hinds County Commissioner after difficult the composition of the fee’s districts in court docket. In 1993 he gained a particular election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Mike Espy, who was chosen as secretary of agriculture beneath President Invoice Clinton.

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

A number of months after the riots that adopted the 1992 acquittal of 4 Los Angeles law enforcement officials for beating Rodney King, Hinds County Bar Affiliation President Harold D. Miller Jr. wrote to Thompson asking to “take a stand for the rule of regulation and towards the philosophy that unwarranted criticism and rioting are acceptable responses to dissatisfaction with a judicial resolution.” Miller fearful there could be riots 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 jurors within the Sixties failed to succeed in a verdict. (He was lastly convicted in 1994).

Mr. Thompson’s response letter contained no help for the troublemakers, however it did present his uncompromising fashion. He wrote of the “unbridled violence” whites had inflicted on black Individuals throughout slavery and past. He talked about the Ku Klux Klan violence and white “homicide mobs” that erupted in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi, throughout Reconstruction.

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

In Congress, Mr. Thompson has labored on fairness points in increased training, opposed Trump’s border wall, and efficiently introduced main federal spending tasks to his district, which incorporates the poverty-stricken Mississippi Delta and the bulk black metropolis of Jackson.

The congressman, an avid hunter, returns to his district most weekends and attends conferences at his retailer’s workplace in Bolton. He’s adorned with photographs of civil rights heroes, images of Mr. Thompson looking pigs and rabbits, and stuffed heads of animals he has photographed.

His governing philosophy is defined in a distinguished poster displaying a dull vermin on a stretch of asphalt. “The one factor standing in the best way,” he says, “is yellow paint and a lifeless armadillo.”

Willie Earl Robinson, the town’s volunteer fireplace chief and longtime ally of the congressman, took a tour of the town this week, stating Metropolis Corridor, the expanded fireplace station and the 40-unit public housing complicated that Thompson helped construct.

“I do not contemplate him offended,” Robinson mentioned. “The purpose is he is simply attempting to get issues completed.”

A number of “Re-Elect Bennie Thompson” indicators have been scattered round, however these are almost definitely a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district has been designed to be secure for a black Democrat, leaving the opposite three Mississippi districts typically secure for Republicans.

Mr. Thompson mentioned the committee’s work was among the many most necessary he had ever completed as a politician.

“I would like it to learn this nation and the world,” he mentioned. “As a result of we’re nonetheless, in my humble opinion, nonetheless the most important nation on the earth. We had a setback on January sixth. And now we have to repair it.”

richard fausset reported from Bolton, and Lucas Broadwater from washington

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