By Gail H. Marshall Brown, Ph.D.,
While most people, including elected officials, were enjoying their Super Bowl Sunday evening, U.S. House of Representative Bennie Gordon Thompson, D-Miss., was keeping his commitment to The Mississippi Link newspaper for a face-to-face Black History interview.
Thompson sat down in his Bolton, MS office with Gail Brown, James Hampton, Jay Johnson and Jackie Hampton for an interview/conversation which lasted almost three hours.
“Congressman Thompson has made so many historical achievements in his career that we felt it would be fitting to feature him in our Black History issue,” said Jackie Hampton, Mississippi Link publisher.
She added, “Spotlighting Thompson is especially note-worthy given that he, an African-American Bolton, Miss. native was chosen in July 2021 by Speaker Nancy Pelosi to chair the United States House Select Committee on the January 6 Attack on our nation’s capitol.”
According to Thompson’s congressional biography, as Select Committee chair, he had “the sole authority to sign and issue a subpoena.”
Thompson applauds the committee’s work
“We were able to put a good team of lawyers and investigators together,” Thompson said. “We sent people all around the world looking for connections to what went on. Fast forward, 90 percent of our witnesses were Republicans, so it was not a partisan ‘witch hunt’ because these were people who worked for the former administration.”
He explained that they found nothing illegal about the conduct of the election.
“We produced an 850-page report,” he said. He explained that based on the exhibits and the footnotes, “the evidence is there.
“Understand, we were not a criminal body. We were a legislative body. And so, we have determined by our recommendation that Donald Trump was and should be charged for criminal activities that led to January 6.”
While Thompson applauded the work of the committee, Mississippi Attorney John Walker applauds Thompson. “His leadership as the chairman of The January 6 Commission was unprecedented and remarkable,” said Walker.
“When the committee was created, the pundits said that Trump and the MAG gang would stonewall the commission and it would accomplish very little. Not only did the committee uncover evidence that the Justice Department had not discovered, but almost all of the witnesses who testified were Republicans who worked in the House with Trump. Further, the committee operated without any drama or conflict among the committee members.”
Jan. 6: Thompson’s refusal to remove his congressional pin
The Mississippi Link reminded Thompson of the photo that went viral of him sitting firmly in the gallery while others were on the floor. What was going through your mind at that point as protesters tried to force their way into the House Chamber?
“Well, to be honest with you, it was anger. It was frustration. But it was also me never giving in to that element,” Thompson said.
“We heard them (the protesters) beating on the doors above us. That’s when we were told to ‘take off your pins because they are going to try to hurt congressmen when they break in.’ Every member of congress has a pin. So, they told us, ‘Take off your pin.’ I said, I ain’t taking off my pin; I ain’t getting on the floor.
He expressed that too many folks fought and died for his opportunity as an African American to wear that Congressional pin.
He recalled sitting near where the protesters would have to break in. “If I’m on the floor, I’ve got to get off the floor to deal with them,” he said. “In my mind, they’ve already won if I’ve got to get on the floor. So, I said [to myself] the first one that gets in is going over that balcony.
Fortunately, the nation’s lawmakers were eventually taken through a tunnel to an adjacent facility in a safer area to shelter in place. He said it was about 400 of them in that one room, and COVID was high during that time. He recalled many were later diagnosed with COVID. Thompson said the ordeal began around 1 p.m., and they had to shelter until about 9 p.m.
Thompson’s education and historic public servant career
Thompson, a proud Tougaloo College alumni, has served Mississippi’s Second Congressional District in Washington since 1993. He is the longest serving African American elected official in the state of Mississippi. He graduated from Tougaloo in 1968 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science.
“I never had a white teacher until I got to Tougaloo,” Thompson said. Growing up, he attended the Bolton Colored School.
“There were no interaction with white kids in Bolton,” he said.
Thompson pointed out that Tougaloo played a very active role in the civil rights movement.
According to a Feb. 1, 2015 Clarion-Ledger report, “It was Tougaloo students in 1961 who led a protest to integrate the public library in Jackson, an effort credited with jump-starting the movement in the state.”
While at Tougaloo, Thompson was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and he volunteered to serve on the famed civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s congressional campaign. According to his biography, although Hamer did not win, it was “her example and the experience of registering African Americans in southern voting drives [that] inspired Thompson to pursue a career in politics.”
This May will mark his 55th year as a Tougaloo graduate.
Before pursuing a political career, Thompson initially followed in his mother, Annie L. Thompson Jeffreys’ footsteps and worked as a public-school teacher. He taught in Madison, Miss.
During that time, he was elected a Bolton alderman in 1969, and “white officials challenged the election in court and forced Thompson to resign his teaching position. The courts upheld the election results and Thompson served as a town alderman from 1969 to 1973” (Black Americans in Congress, p. 736).
Thompson became Bolton’s first African-American mayor in 1969. As mayor, he made improvements and repairs to the infrastructure, water systems, dilapidated houses, and more.
“He got Bolton our first fire truck,” said Lovie Robinson, a longtime friend and schoolmate. “I have known the congressman all of his life which is 70-plus years. “We went from Bolton Colored School all the way to Tougaloo College.”
Asked what she thinks of his service as a public servant, Robinson replied: “Like the song, “He Has Done Great Things for Me,” he has done great things for Mississippi. He has helped schools in his congressional district from elementary to college. He has helped other aspiring Mississippi lawmakers run for office and contributed to change.”
Thompson also served as the first African-American on the Hinds County Board of Supervisors from 1980 to 1993. He shared with The Mississippi Link what led to his supervisor position: “Henry Kirksey (the now late Sen. Henry Kirksey) and I sued to redistrict the county. Hinds County was about 40 percent black at the time but all five of the supervisors were white. It took us seven years in court to win. We won in 1979. So, folks said, ‘you know you got to run.’ I said, I’m good; I’m out here in the country. So, I did.”
He has and still serves on a number of key committees in Washington. Thompson served on the Agriculture, Budget and Small Business Committees before assuming the top Democratic position on Homeland Security in 2005. Soon after, his colleagues promoted Thompson to serve as the first ever Democratic chairman of the Homeland Security Committee.
He continued his education and earned his Master of Science in educational administration from Jackson State University and later pursued doctoral work in public administration at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg.
A man of many adjectives
Many close to Thompson have many descriptions of him. His longtime friend and former Washington County, Miss. Supervisor Alfred “Al” Rankins, Sr. said Thompson is accessible and accountable. “He has an open-door policy. He has an office here in Greenville. He is accountable because if he tells you he is going to do something, he is going to do it. And, he is transparent.”
Rankins said when he was aspiring to become supervisor in the 1990’s, Thompson came to Greenville to help him with his campaign. Introduced by a mutual civil rights friend, “Bennie and I have been friends ever since,” Rankins said. “We believed in the same thing: trying to make things better for our people. So, we just jelled.”
Rankins still applauds Thompson for the federal funds he helped get to improve the town of Metcalfe, Miss.’s water-sewer situation.
Robinson described him as self determined, a born leader and consistent. “I say self-determined because he has always set goals for himself that led him to further success. A born leader because he has always had a natural ability to lead, and finally, consistent because his success has not changed him.”
Walker described him as relentless, transformational, tireless and selfless. “Once he undertakes a project/campaign of any type, he will stay on task until it is completed despite events/persons attempting to prevent him from succeeding,” Walker said.
“His involvement in the Jackson Water Crisis is an example of transforming positively the role of a U.S. congressman. Since being elected to Congress in 1993, he has taken positions, requested investigations, and been heavily involved in local issues in his Congressional district and outside his district.
“He is tireless in that he comes to Mississippi practically every week” since in office. When he does not come, he will go to a meeting or event at which he is speaking.
“He is selfless in that he will fly into Jackson and have a slate of scheduled meetings in the Bolton Office Saturday and Sunday with anyone requesting a meeting – for example, the meeting with The Mississippi Link he had on Super Bowl Sunday.”
Bolton, his home and safe haven
“He is very proud of his upbringing and where he is from,” Robinson said.
Thompson said, “To me, Bolton is a safe haven because I was born here. And here, I don’t have to be anything other than Bennie.”
He also shared that his mother and father were good people.
“My daddy, Will Thompson, was an auto mechanic. My mama taught him how to write his name because black boys couldn’t go to school back then. My daddy died when I was in the 10th grade, never being a registered voter,” Thompson reflected.
“My mama was the first black librarian for the Hinds County School District.”
He explained that after his father died, he was embraced by the Bolton community, his church, teachers, coaches, band director and others. His hometown still embraces him today. “My Sunday School Superintendent became one of the surrogate fathers for me. He took me to the civil rights meetings held at Mt. Beulah in Edwards,” he said.
Thompson is married to his college sweetheart London Johnson Thompson, a Mound Bayou, Miss. native. They have one daughter and two grandchildren. He is a member of Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity and a lifetime member of Asbury United Methodist Church of Bolton.
He urges everyone to study their history (good and bad). Stay knowledgeable on what’s happening. “If we don’t study the history, they’re coming back,” he said.
When asked what he wants his legacy to be, he said he wants people to remember that he never changed. “Sure, I have been fortunate but I’m still the same guy.”
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