BOLTON, Miss.—It was here, in this mostly black town of 441, that Rep. Bennie G. Thompson attended a segregated high school. It was there that his father spent his life working as a mechanic and paying taxes, but never having the right to vote. And it was there that the future congressman, in the early 1970s, campaigned for mayor while carrying a gun, after receiving threats from white people reluctant to give up political power.
So it’s no surprise to those familiar with Mr. Thompson that he was quick to mention Bolton, Mississippi, after ordering the first hearing of the committee of inquiry into the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“I come from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching,” said Mr. Thompson, chairman of the committee. “I remember this dark history as I hear voices today trying to justify the actions of the insurgents on January 6, 2021.”
Moments later, Mr. Thompson accused former President Donald J. Trump of “inciting a host of national enemies of the Constitution to descend from the Capitol and subvert American democracy.”
Mr. Thompson, who is also chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, has spent nearly 30 years on Capitol Hill, but his leadership of the Jan. 6 committee represents his most significant turn into the national spotlight. And it’s thematically consistent with a public life that was forged in Mississippi when disenfranchisement was achieved through chicanery, intimidation and violence.
“I think he took January 6 personally, based on his work and what he stands for to make sure people have a voice at the ballot box,” said State Senator Derrick T. Simmons, a fellow Democrat.
In an interview on Friday, Mr. Thompson said so. To some people, he said, the slogan “Make America Great Again” sounded like a “dog whistle” to a world like the white-dominated Mississippi in which he grew up. He said he was disturbed by the gallows protesters brought to Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 6 and by Confederate flags in the crowd.
“We are supposed to be a democracy,” he said. “And when you see people carrying Confederate battle flags in the group, it’s a symbol of slavery and absolute resistance to the rule of law. So for me, it was reviving a part of our history that none of us should be proud of.
The themes of the January 6 House committee hearings
With his avuncular white beard and authoritative voice, Mr. Thompson, 74, set the serious and almost solemn tone of the committee. He also ceded much of the limelight to Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming and the committee’s vice chair.
Mr. Thompson and other Democrats surely recognize that a scathing criticism of Mr. Trump is more powerful coming from a Republican. At the same time, the close alliance Mr Thompson appears to have forged with Ms Cheney has softened his reputation as a hard-line supporter reluctant to work with Republicans.
In Mississippi, that reluctance is often attributed to the emotional scars Mr. Thompson bears from his years of fighting for basic civil rights against white Mississippians who migrated to the Republican Party after President Lyndon B. Johnson won the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.
Mr. Thompson “is all about partisanship,” journalist Adam Lynch wrote in 2006 in The Jackson Free Press, a liberal newspaper. “He is truly a liberal Democrat who has no predilection for smiling tolerantly at the other side.”
When he first ran for Congress in 1993, Thompson told the New York Times that an adversarial strategy for black people in Mississippi “has been one of the primary means of survival “.
His record as an activist dates back to his time in college, when he was arrested for participating in a protest in Jackson after hearing speeches by Medgar Evers, the civil rights leader assassinated by a white supremacist in 1963.
“He was talking about things that a lot of people felt, but didn’t have the courage to talk about,” Mr. Thompson recalled in a 1974 interview. “It was basically about why black people are the ones who don’t don’t have good jobs, why are black people the ones who don’t have decent housing?”
He enrolled at Tougaloo College, Jackson, then a hotbed of anti-racist organizing, joining the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which focused on black voter registration. In Tougaloo, he also met Fannie Lou Hamer, the prominent civil rights activist, and volunteered for her unsuccessful campaign for Congress.
He worked briefly after college as a public school teacher, but said his contract was not renewed after he assigned an essay on the topic, “What’s wrong with Mississippi?” In 1969 he was elected alderman for Bolton, part of a wave of black civil servants who held local elected office in the South as a result of the Voting Rights Act.
Two other black candidates had also won aldermen races at Bolton that year. The town clerk, Mr Thompson said, initially refused to work with them, firing a racial slur at them. In 1973, white residents challenged Mr. Thompson’s election as mayor, accusing him of illegally registering out-of-town voters. The election, he said, generated eight lawsuits.
Once in office, he flooded federal agencies with letters asking for funding and other support for programs he hoped would transform the city. He helped found the state’s Association of Black Mayors, then co-founded its first Association of Black County Supervisors, building networks and helping others get elected to small local offices along the way.
“He probably did more than anyone to get black people elected to local political office,” said Danny E. Cupit, a trial lawyer and longtime friend of Mr. Thompson.
Mr Thompson became Hinds County Commissioner after challenging the composition of the commission’s districts in court. In 1993, he won a special election to fill the congressional seat vacated by Mike Espy, who was selected as agriculture secretary under President Bill Clinton.
The year before he went to Congress, an incident occurred that recently prompted Representative Matt Gaetz, Trump’s far-right supporter from Florida, to falsely claim that Mr. Thompson “actively encouraged riots in the 1990s”.
Months after the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers in the beating of Rodney King, Hinds County Bar Association head Harold D. Miller Jr. wrote to Mr. Thompson asking him to “take a stand in favor of the rule of law and against the philosophy that unwarranted criticism and rioting are acceptable responses to dissatisfaction with a judicial decision. Mr Miller feared rioting could ensue if a jury acquitted Byron De La Beckwith, the white racist who killed Mr Evers and was facing a new murder trial after two juries in the 1960s failed to rendering of verdict. (He was finally convicted in 1994.)
Mr. Thompson’s response letter contained no support for the rioters, but it gave a taste of his uncompromising style. He wrote of the “unbridled violence” white people inflicted on black Americans during slavery and beyond. He mentioned Ku Klux Klan violence and white “murderous gangs” that broke out in cities like New Orleans and Vicksburg, Mississippi, during Reconstruction.
“Before 1968 there were no elected Africans in Hinds County,” he wrote. “What has the Hinds County Bar done to remedy this injustice?”
In Congress, Mr. Thompson has worked on equity issues in higher education, opposed Mr. Trump’s border wall and successfully brought major federal spending plans to his district, which includes the Delta. of poverty-stricken Mississippi and the predominantly black town of Jackson.
The congressman, an avid hunter, is back in his district most weekends, taking meetings in his office in Bolton. It is decorated with images of civil rights heroes, photos of Mr. Thompson on hog and rabbit hunts and stuffed heads of animals he has slaughtered.
Its governance philosophy is spelled out on a prominent poster that shows lifeless vermin on a stretch of asphalt. “The only thing in the middle of the road,” he says, “is yellow paint and a dead armadillo.”
Willie Earl Robinson, the city’s volunteer fire chief and longtime congressman ally, toured the city this week, pointing out City Hall, the expanded fire station and the public housing complex in 40 homes Mr. Thompson helped build.
“I don’t consider him to be angry,” Mr Robinson said. “The thing is, he’s just trying to get things done.”
A number of “Re-elect Bennie Thompson” signs were strewn about, but this is most likely a formality. Mr. Thompson’s district was designed to be safe for a black Democrat, leaving the other three Mississippi districts generally safe for Republicans.
Mr. Thompson said the committee’s work was among the most important he had been involved in as a politician.
“I want this to benefit this country and the world,” he said. “Because we are still, in my humble opinion, the greatest country in the world. We just had a hiccup on January 6. And we have to fix it.
Richard Fausset reported from Bolton, and Luke Broadwater from Washington.