Why It's Important that a Black Man from Mississippi, Bennie Thompson, Is Leading the January 6th Committee
Bennie Thompson comes from a state that denied Black people voting rights. Now he leads the nation in protecting them.
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I spent five years working and studying for a masters degree in Jackson, Mississippi. I spent another five years earning my PhD in history from the University of Mississippi.
A decade of some of the most important years of my life spent in a state notorious for its attempts to preserve white supremacy by denying Black people the right to vote.
During my time in Mississippi I learned about the 1890 constitution, that established literacy tests and poll taxes to ensure Black voter disfranchisement. I learned about how Mississippi led the nation in lynchings, many of them connected to the struggle for voting rights.
I learned about the creation of the Citizen’s Council, state-sponsored spying on civil rights activists. I learned about the torture of Fannie Lou Hamer in a Mississippi jail that left who with lifelong injuries all because she had the audacity to work for voting rights.
All of that history roared to the forefront of my consciousness as I watched Bennie G. Thompson, a Democratic representative from Mississippi and a Black man, kick off the Congressional January 6th Committee hearings on national television.
This hearing and the ones that follow present crucial testimony and information about one of the direst moments in our nation’s history—an attempted overthrow of lawful presidential election results that occurred on January 6, 2021.
White supremacist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers planned and executed an attack on Congress as legislators were set to formally approve the 2020 presidential election results.
Seven people died in connection to the insurrection that day, and that is not including two officers who later died by suicide or the hundreds of others who were injured and otherwise traumatized by the events of that day.
Elected officials in Congress owe the American people accountability for the violation of the hallowed process of peacefully transitioning power from one president to the next.
The Chair of the Select Committee
To ensure our future and our posterity from anti-democratic forces, Congress established the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol.
The purpose of the Select Committee is “To investigate and report upon the facts, circumstances, and causes relating to the January 6, 2021, domestic terrorist attack upon the United States Capitol Complex.”
Legislators selected Rep. Thompson, who also chairs the Committee on Homeland Security, to lead the committee that will produce a final report on January 6th insurrection. Findings from this report could help preserve democracy as we know it.
The symbolism of a Black congressperson from Mississippi leading the charge to protect democracy at the national level should not go unnoticed.
In his opening statement, Thompson acknowledged the significance of being from Mississippi and leading the Select Committee.
I was born, raised, and still live Bolton, Mississippi, a town with a population of 521…“I’m from a part of the country where people justify the actions of slavery, Ku Klux Klan, and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists of January 6, 2021.
Mississippi’s History of White Supremacy and Voter Suppression
Thompson was born and still lives in the tiny own of Bolton, Mississippi. His life in the state has been defined by politicians who used their power to preserve a white supremacist status quo, mainly by preventing Black people from participating in the democratic process.
Born in 1948, Thompson began life in the era of racial segregation and terrorism known as Jim Crow.
When Thompson was just a boy, the officials who represented his state in Congress included men such as Thomas Abernethy, who signed the Southern Manifesto vowing to resist the Brown v. Board decision, he voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Abernethy also opposed the 1957 Civil Rights act by reading into the congressional record his theory that the whole racial justice movement was according to a plan by a Jewish communist.
Senators from Mississippi during Thompson’s time growing up included James O. Eastland.
For most of his political career, Eastland also ran his family’s plantation in Sunflower County that used sharecroppers as laborers. He was named after his uncle who was allegedly killed by a Black sharecropper, Luther Holbert, in 1904. Holbert and his companion, Mary, were the victims of a notorious lynching near the Eastland plantation in connection with the death.
A Time magazine article from 1956 called Eastland the “spiritual leader of Southern resistance to school desegregation.” From the Senate floor Eastland proclaimed “the Negro race is an inferior race.”
Eastland’s belief in the subordination of Black people fueled his anti-democratic practices. He declared his intention that white Mississippians "maintain control of our own elections and . . . will protect and maintain white supremacy throughout eternity."
Today, elected officials from Mississippi continue to demonstrate racial ignorance even as they represent a state with the highest proportion of Black people.
Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith made national headlines during her 2018 election campaign when she said of a fundraising partner, “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be on the front row.”
Rep. Thompson called for Hyde-Smith to apologize for the comment. She refused.
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A Monumental Role
Given the litany of white politicians from Mississippi who have opposed voting rights for Black people and others, it is a rare and significant fact that Bennie Thompson represents the state at the highest levels of government.
Now Thompson is tasked with leading the effort to seek the truth about what happened at the January 6th insurrection attempt and communicate that information in a transformative way.
That a Black man from Mississippi would hold such a prominent role in defending democracy should be noted, but it should not be a surprise.
Those who most ardently defend democracy are those to whom democracy has most often been denied.