Jan. 6 committee's Bennie Thompson, a historic Black lawmaker, sees echoes of America's 'dark history'

The chairman is the longest-serving Black elected official in Mississippi.

July 12, 2022, 5:07 AM

Rep. Bennie Thompson knows all too well the dangers of a democracy denied.

The longest serving African-American elected official in Mississippi, Thompson started his political career just four years after the Civil Rights Act of 1965 granted him access to his local government. Now 74, Thompson heads the House's Jan. 6 committee investigating the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol by a pro-Trump mob.

After a year-long inquiry, the committee has been holding a series of hearings featuring sometimes startling testimony from former Trump aides, with the next session scheduled for Tuesday. Thompson, as chairman, has taken a leading role in describing the panel's work to the public.

When he delivered the opening statement at the first of the committee's latest hearings, last month, he drew connections between his upbringing in the segregated American South and the actions of the Capitol rioters.

"I am from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. I'm reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of insurrectionists on Jan. 6, 2021," he said.

He told CNN last month that he felt called to his work with the committee -- in service of a country that had not always served him.

"I want, as an African-American, to be able to say to the world that I helped stabilize our government when insurrectionists tried to take over," he said. "And the points that we will recommend when adopted will guarantee that those insurrectionists will never, ever do it again."

He knew democracy wasn't a given. His father didn't live to see the day the Civil Rights Act changed access to democracy for Black Americans. And Thompson was raised in Mississippi in the shadow of Jim Crow.

"I take nothing for granted," he told the Jackson Free Press in 2012. "My first school I attended in this town was called Bolton Colored School. I walked past Bolton School to get to Bolton Colored School. My mama and daddy worked, paid taxes, but their son had to attend an inferior school. That's history. I don't ever want history to repeat itself. To that extent, I have always been a champion of making our system of government work for everybody."

Now well into his 13th term as a representative for Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District, Thompson began his career as an activist at Tugaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi.

There, he worked on grassroots initiatives within the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, organizing voter registration drives for African-Americans throughout the Mississippi Delta.

After graduating in 1968, Thompson became a teacher, following in his mother's footsteps. Then in 1969, he was elected as alderman of his hometown, of Bolton, Mississippi, from 1969 until 1972. The following year, he was elected as the first Black mayor of Bolton, a role in which served until 1980.

Because of blockages by the prior white mayor to legislation to help Black neighborhoods in the area, Thompson's community had encouraged him to run, he told the Jackson Free Press.

"The man I replaced as Mayor was very rich," Thompson said in a 1976 interview with The New York Times. "Whenever we used to ask him to see help from outside, he would always say, 'We don't need any help—everything's fine here.'"

As mayor, Thompson also served as a founding member and president of the Mississippi Conference of Black Mayors.

According to the Times, the conference helped increase the influence of Black initiatives in Mississippi, bringing in millions of dollars for housing, jobs, health, public facilities and road improvement programs.

Moving on from his mayorship, Thompson served as a Hinds County Supervisor from 1980 to 1993 before being elected to Congress in 1993.

Beginning his service as the representative for Mississippi's largest congressional district, including both Jackson and the Delta, Thompson won a racially-tense election and was linked to "the effort to consolidate black political power in the years after the Voting Rights Act of 1965," according to a 1993 Times article.

At the time he was elected as Bolton’s mayor, setting him on the path to Congress, he told the Times, "This has been my lifelong dream." But not everyone was pleased with the rise of Black representation in the small Mississippi town.

He recalled last month how there was a lawsuit against his 18-vote-margin win.

"People said somehow I cheated, that it couldn't be a lawful election," he told CNN. "Fast forward. Some of the same comments that I heard back then resonated on Jan. 6th."

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