U.S. Congressman Bennie Thompson, who has for nearly three decades been the lone representative of African Americans in the Blackest state in America, predicted that Democrat Mike Espy will win the U.S. Senate race on Nov. 3 after Black Mississippians turn out to vote in “tremendous” numbers.
Thompson, who made the remarks during an hour-long podcast conversation with Mississippi Today about race in politics, said he believes that Black Mississippi voters, galvanized by President Donald Trump’s “negative attitude toward people who don’t look like him,” will turn out in record or near-record numbers next week.
Espy, who is seeking to become Mississippi’s first Black U.S. senator elected by popular vote, faces incumbent Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith on Nov. 3.
“I think Trump has demonstrated who he is, and people want to get him out,” Thompson said. “I think Mike Espy will be the beneficiary of the anti-Trump Black vote in Mississippi. Now the other thing is I think there are some other groups that Trump has alienated. A lot of suburban, college-educated women. He has continuously marginalized their level of intelligence by what he says. They’re absolutely embarrassed.”
Below is the complete transcript of the conversation with Thompson, which has been edited for clarity. You can also listen to the interview on The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast.
Mississippi Today: What do you make of this national moment (the reckoning on racism in politics)? I’ve heard from many activists that they’re happy to have the conversation now, but they’re frustrated it took so long for this to come to the forefront of national politics. Do you share that sentiment, and what do you make of this moment?
Rep. Bennie Thompson: As you know, one of the most difficult topics I’ve come in contact with in my life is a discussion about race. Race, across the board, has always been that discussion that never took place. And when it did, it was always a superficial discussion and not one that really burrowed down into the crux of why race is so controversial. I’ve lived in Mississippi my whole life. I was born at home simply because there was no hospital available for me to be born in. I was delivered by a midwife because there was no doctor available to perform or assist with the birth. Nonetheless, I also attended segregated public schools in the state of Mississippi, never having a new textbook my entire 12 years of public school. There were some very systemic yet overt acts that told me that you are being treated differently because of how you look.
As I fast-forward to where we are now, the George Floyd, Breonna Taylor murders really put a bright light on the issue of race and social justice in America. And so just like every other movement in this country, it takes something to shock the conscience of the country before you move in that direction. In the 60s, when we had white young people coming to the South advocating for integration in education, public accommodations and housing getting beat up just like the Black people who were coming, that shocked the conscience of this country. And when white religious leaders and others started getting killed because of that advocacy, it shocked this country even more. So the murder of George Floyd, the killing of Breonna Taylor that played out for the most part in full view of all of us, that reckoning is here.
So the question is: What do we do as Americans, and what do we do as Mississippians? The first thing we have to do is admit we have a problem. And then after that admission, you bring people together. The real challenge for us in this state is, for the most part, my white friends who want to do something will invite people who are not quote offensive in their discussion, they’re nice, and they fill a certain standard. So the question is, if you really want to get to the problem, you have to get to the people most impacted. That means the individuals who structurally, from a societal standpoint, are at the low end and find out how you got there, what problems precipitated why you’re there, and what it is that can be done to lift you off the bottom. Well that’s easier said than done, and that’s where the real discussion of race comes in.
You just mentioned something I want to touch on when you said the first thing we need to do is acknowledge we have a problem. It’s a big election year, of course. I think the timing of this reckoning comes at a profound time politically. So many politicians have embraced that acknowledgement and this greater conversation about how we can be better, and others haven’t. I would argue that not enough of that is happening in Mississippi. Do you agree with that? Are our politicians doing enough to have honest conversations about all this?
Well you know, no they’re not. I’ll take something real simple like healthcare. The majority of counties in our state are medically underserved. That means that we don’t have enough medical professionals to serve the population in those counties. So you would think that if something like healthcare would be a problem, then a remedy to that problem would be accepted. So what we did in Washington a few years ago was pass the Affordable Care Act. Now what it had was a Medicaid expansion component that gave a local decision to each state as to whether or not you wanted to participate in this program and be paid by the federal government for serving poor people. Well interesting to note is Mississippi is yet to accept that free money, even though it’s intended to address a documented problem in our state. And so you can only say the majority of those people who would be helped in this program first of all are poor, secondly from a racial standpoint are African American.
And so again, race trumps providing healthcare in this instance. There are five hospitals that have closed in this state. Several others are teetering on bankruptcy. You would think, “Why in the world wouldn’t a politician accept money that’s going to help address a documented problem?” Well, here we go again: Race. Many of those politicians would tell you, “I don’t see color, I’m a Christian.” Well the reality is, by the fact that you said you don’t really means you do. The fact that you’re a Christian and that you’re trying to gloss over the problem really signifies a bigger problem. As you know, the most segregated place in America is churches on Sunday because generally, people go to their own respective institutions. When you see it structurally, they are as segregated as any other institution, if not more. So even houses of worship are not exempt from this racial problem that we have in our state and America.
There might be some people listening to this interview right now thinking, “Why do they always have to make it all about race?” I’ve gotten many emails like that recently. Let me pose that question to you for anyone listening who thinks that: Why is race important to bring up?
I would say look at where white people were 50 years ago compared to where white people are now, and look at where Black people were 50 years ago to where Black people are now. We still, for the most part, have not closed the gap. Whites make more income, and therefore they’re able to have a better life. Black people at the beginning didn’t have an opportunity to make certain things because the law didn’t allow that to happen. You say, “Well that was the past.” How do I make up for that 50 years of discrimination by saying, “Oh, now we’re free and everybody can do what they want?” You don’t take into consideration what those 50 years, for the sake of this discussion, really have done to a group of people.
All of a sudden you can say, “I’m ready to join the Kentucky Derby, and anybody Black or white can put their mount in the Kentucky Derby and everything’s fine.” But the reality of the situation is I don’t have a thoroughbred, I got a jackass. So just because I can put my jackass in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t mean I have a chance at winning the derby because I’ve not had the benefit of raising a thoroughbred. So just giving me the opportunity to get in the race doesn’t address the systemic racism that has historically existed.
When I went to public school in Mississippi, we didn’t have running water in the schools when I started. We didn’t have a library. We didn’t have a cafeteria because we didn’t have running water. Well you say now we have it. Yes, but the years of racial discrimination has its impact, and that is a problem. And so it’s a real challenge for us to try to close the gap. And you can’t close the gap without some enhanced measures.
I’m one of those folks who sued Institutions of Higher Learning in the state because when I went for a graduate degree at Jackson State University, our library was virtually void of current books. So when I was given an assignment, I had to come across town to the Millsaps College library because they allowed Black people to come in the library, but also because the state-supported institutions that were Black did not have it. When I went to USM in Hattiesburg, the library had everything. It was like, “Gee, if you can’t learn with all these resources here, you’ve got a problem.” But I look back at Jackson State, my alma mater now, and you felt like my parents worked hard, they paid taxes, kept their nose clean, stayed out of trouble, yet still the system tried to give their son a second-class education. Separate and unequal was declared unconstitutional, but we had to go back to court to get that. So if you teach me on an inferior platform, then the expectations at the end of that teaching is that you have a less than acceptable student because you didn’t provide that student with a quality education because they were Black, not because of any other reasons. That’s our real problem right now.
Your start in politics, I believe, was inspired by activism. You were a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) while a student at Tougaloo College, organizing voter registration drives for African Americans throughout the Mississippi Delta.
I want to read the first two lines of your official House bio: “Born in a state with a unique history of racial inequality, Congressman Bennie G. Thompson draws inspiration from the legacies of Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry and Henry Kirksey. The Bolton, Mississippi native considers it an honor to walk the path Mississippi civil rights icons paved decades ago.”
A lot of your constituents would say you’re right in line with those icons. What does that mean to you?
Well you know I am fortunate to have lived and experienced those individuals you talked about, and basically homed my efforts in the past when they advocated. So what I want Mississippi to be is a Mississippi where my grandchildren will have to make a decision not based on economics or anything around race as to whether or not they want to stay. I’m the only person in my family who didn’t leave Mississippi and go north. My offspring left seeking a better way of life. They didn’t really want to leave home, but if they wanted things to be better, then they had to go. So every time they would come home, that discussion would always take place. You know, “I really didn’t want to leave, but I just couldn’t stand picking cotton, I couldn’t stand working for $2 a day. That’s not who I want to be.” My two brothers joined the military first because that was their way out, and then when they came back, they ended up in Michigan rather than coming back to Mississippi. So what I’ve tried to do is create a climate where young people, if they want to stay, there are some opportunities.
The best example I can tell you is that my cardiologist is a graduate of Tougaloo. He has a degree from Harvard Medical School, but he couldn’t go to University Medical Center here in Jackson because they didn’t allow Black students. Well guess what? University Medical Center instructor interviewed him (muffled audio). Now go figure that. Woodrow Wilson said, “If you want to make enemies, try to change things.” So I have structurally looked at our system of higher education. We’ve challenged how people get elected. We’ve challenged the Highway Patrol, which was all white. You have to do that, but then people label you this, that and the other…
Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, Henry Kirksey and Medgar Evers were mentors for me, and people kind of see me in their footprints – but I haven’t endured what they had to endure or what they stood for when they were here on earth. One of the things I want to do is be the representative of the people. Somebody who’s never forgotten who sent me, and somebody who’s never forgotten what they sent me for. Whether it’s affordable healthcare, if it’s equality and equal education, economic stability for families, all those individuals stood for those things. But as important, leadership is taking positions that might not be a popular position at the time you take it. But nonetheless, it’s the correct decision. And so I think that is symbolic of what I’ve tried to address during my public, elected career.
You’ve won a lot of elections in Mississippi. I think it’s 13, is that right?
Well I’ve won 13 congressional elections. I’ve been blessed to have been elected since I was 20 years old. I’m 72 years old now, and I’ve never lost an election. You know, I’m a home boy. I go to the same Asbury United Methodist Church that I was baptized in. The things I enjoy, hunting and fishing with my friends, I still do. When I had a full head of hair, I went to the same barber shop. So you try to be mindful of the people who sent you. My congressional office in Jackson is located on Medgar Evers Boulevard. I could be in the federal building, but you know a lot of people who vote for Bennie Thompson are not comfortable going downtown Jackson. They’re not comfortable going into buildings where you get searched. Many of them can’t afford to pay for parking, so we make it convenient. Fortunately, all the time I’ve been on Medgar Evers Boulevard, I’ve never had a break-in because our office is part of the community. If you want a cup of coffee, you can come in and get it. If you want to use the bathroom, come in and use it. If you just need to come in and talk, people are there. And so we have taken that philosophy to the fullest extent: It doesn’t matter who you are, we will represent you. We take umbrage to the person walking the street just like a person wearing a suit.
Mississippi is the only state that didn’t expand early voting for all during the pandemic. On Sept. 30, Gov. Tate Reeves was the first governor in the nation to end a statewide mask mandate, which some people say will deter some voters who might not want to risk their health to vote. Secretary of State Michael Watson says voters won’t have to wear masks at polling places. In your mind, are these things voter suppression?
It is voter suppression, but it’s also dumb. Here we are in the middle of the pandemic, and health professionals say that social distancing and mask wearing is preferred in any enclosed space. Most voting precincts in this state, you have a number of people working inside them. You have people wanting to go inside to vote. So why would you risk your life just to vote, unless you felt that all precautions were being met? A simple precaution like a mask could be the encouragement necessary for a person to go and vote. The good part about it is I’ve talked to election officials throughout my district, and they’ve said they’ll let people vote outside the precinct if they won’t wear a mask inside the precinct. Some are saying they’ll let people vote curbside. But all that should not be, you know? We put CARES Act funds in the treasury of the state of Mississippi and said, “Buy the necessary PPE so if someone shows up without a mask, give them one.” That’s just one of a number of methods that would suppress voters turnout, at least in the minds of some voters because they just don’t feel comfortable. You know we didn’t change our traditional absentee ballot law. The traditional early voting, we don’t have that. We had an excellent chance to do it, but the only law we have in effect… it would’ve been so easy to say, “We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Why don’t we do what most other states did?” It could be up to a certain point, 30, 60 days. It could’ve been a mid-point somewhere where we all could’ve agreed. But they said no. We should be a better state than that, but unfortunately, we’re not.
All the laws we’re talking about here are passed at the state level. You couldn’t change them if you wanted to. Do you get frustrated by leaders in the state not doing these things in a situation like this?
You know, it’s one of those situations that you hope for the best. Rather than not support the opportunity for this state to be better, I’m still going to promote the opportunity. Hopefully, our state will turn the corner. But I never thought I’d see our state leaders embrace changing the state flag. They took the coward’s way out of trying to change it. Leadership should’ve said we’re going to change it because it’s the right thing to do. But when you don’t want your fingerprints on something, you appoint a commission. And that’s what they did.
But you know, the things I’ve seen happen in the last few years, all of a sudden counties were told you need to reduce your number of precincts because it cost too much to conduct elections. Well, you know, democracy is not cheap. We are a rural state. Why would you disadvantage people who perhaps don’t have their own mode of transportation, which makes it more difficult to vote? Or voter ID – in Mississippi, if you don’t have an ID, you have to go to the courthouse to apply for it. Then you have to wait until it comes back to pick it up. They don’t even send it to you. So that’s two trips that are hard to make. You have a number of senior citizens who have never driven cars or have the federal ID you need. So you’re inconveniencing those seniors who are mostly retired and living on a fixed income. It’s a poll tax in reverse because now I have to pay somebody to take me down to the courthouse in order to be qualified to vote.
So those things still come. You don’t have to interpret the Constitution anymore, tell how many jelly beans are in a jar or any of that. But the barriers still exist. As you know, I’ve been in a lot of elections. I’m not aware of any situation where somebody came and tried to cheat on Election Day by voting more than one time, or voting a name that wasn’t theirs. Those are things we haven’t experienced. So the history of this type operation is non-existent. So the reasons not to do it are just not well founded.
What do you sense about Black voter turnout this November?
I’m convinced it will be higher than it was in 2016. Donald Trump has been a motivating factor for what I perceive as a higher turnout. His negative attitude toward people who don’t look like him, his pronounced negativity on African Americans and Latinos, him talking negatively about people from Africa. All that has added fuel to the fire of people wanting to vote Donald Trump out. When I talk to people in various parts of the state, probably 9 out of 10 that I engage will say, “I’m going to vote against Donald Trump.” They don’t say they’re going to vote for Joe Biden. It’s just that Donald Trump has, for all the wrong reasons, really embarrassed us as Americans, but the fact that he picked on African Americans and others is just really a shame. And because of that, he’s going to have to bear the brunt of what I perceive as a tremendous African American turnout.
How do you handicap the Senate race with Espy and Hyde-Smith? Do you think Mike Espy will win?
I do. I think he’s going to win because he retooled his campaign from two years ago. He’s targeted the voters that he’s trying to touch, those infrequent voters are coming based on the targeting that went with it. We now have a seasoned campaign staff based on certain expertise they didn’t have two years ago. And he’s financed and raised the necessary money to have a credible campaign. The fact that he will have, I think, a tremendous turnout in the Black community for two or three reasons. One is the Trump factor. I think that in this state, African Americans will vote probably for Biden around 91-92%. That’s virtually unheard of. Barack Obama didn’t get those percentage numbers in this state. I think Trump has demonstrated who he is, and people want to get him out. I think Mike Espy will be the beneficiary of the anti-Trump Black vote in Mississippi. Now the other thing is I think there are some other groups that Trump has alienated. A lot of suburban, college-educated women. He has continuously marginalized their level of intelligence by what he says. They’re absolutely embarrassed. Then there are other people who just don’t like how (Trump) conducts himself. You are the chief elected official in the greatest country in the world, and for the most part, you’re acting like a tier-one dictator. We’re a better country than that. We’re a democracy. We’ve been taught that we can differ, but we should never forgo our standards nor the people we work with, and I think that’s been forgotten over the past four years.
You’ve helped Espy out a good bit. You’ve done some events together, you called Sen. Schumer for Espy, you set up some fundraisers for him at the convention. What else have you done for him?
I’m not the kind of person who wants to be the only Democratic elected official in Washington from this state. I helped elect Ronnie Shows when he was in Congress and others. But now it’s just me. That’s too big a burden on my shoulders as the lone Democrat. I need help. Mike Espy has the expertise and the love for this state to get it done. So I wholeheartedly want him to come so I can share this disproportionate burden that I’m bearing on behalf of Democratic voters in the state of Mississippi.
I know you and Espy know each other well. You took his seat in Congress when he was appointed to the Cabinet. You can’t work in politics for so long without knowing each other. Can you talk about what kind of senator he’d be for Mississippi?
Well I think he would be one that’s knowledgeable about a number of things that are important to our state. Our agricultural economy is absolutely one of the best. We need a senator who has the breadth and wisdom and knowledge. He’s been secretary of agriculture. That speaks for itself. He has legal training. He was born and raised in Yazoo City. His whole genre of experiences say that once he’s elected, he hits the ground running. He’s had experience in the House. But he goes to the Senate where he’ll be 1 of 100, rather than being like me in the House where you’re 1 in 435. And so he can elevate the standard, he can help break the glass ceiling of African American elected officials in this state. He would be unique. He was the first African American elected to the House since Reconstruction, and he’ll be the first African American elected to the Senate since Reconstruction. So we’ll have a twofer in Mike Espy.
So it sounds like he has your complete blessing?
Oh, absolutely. The next two weeks, we will be joining hands. Last week, we were in Greenville together doing events. We were in Cleveland doing an event. Like I said, I’ve done several events with various people, and they’ve all been very, very positive. There’s no daylight between Bennie Thompson and Mike Espy in this Nov. 3 election.
Were you as behind him two years ago as you are this year?
Oh yeah. You look at the numbers he got in the second district. He really needs to get those numbers this time, and I’m sure he will, if not a little higher because it’s a presidential year. But even with that, I have my campaign, he has his. Every time there’s an opportunity to work together, we do. We have a day planned on Election Day. There’ll be some areas of my district that I’ll tell him, “Mike, you don’t need to have your folk over here. We got your back. You need to go over to Meridian, or Tupelo or Biloxi or Hattiesburg, outside the second district.” We will free him up from a resource standpoint and a manpower standpoint to work in other parts of the state.
Every time Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith talks about race, she seemingly makes a gaffe. She doesn’t seem to be very sensitive to racial issues when she talks about them. Some would say she’s an outright racist. Do you think she’s a good representative of the state?
I think you are the sum total of your experiences. If your lot in life has been around a specific group of people, and you’ve been void of African Americans, then that’s who you are. And so while some say you might be prone to gaffes, that’s really who you are. Fortunately, that’s not Mississippi. You can’t talk about hanging and not understand the history of hangings or lynchings in this state and how that’s not, in the eyes of most Black people and a lot of white people, something you brag on. And so I think that sensitivity to issues of race with Cindy Hyde-Smith is just not there.
I guess you would say that sensitivity is an important thing for a U.S. senator from Mississippi to have?
Well when you have the highest percentage of African Americans in your state, you have to have a sensitivity to African Americans. You have to have relationships with the historically Black colleges. You have to have relationships with the leaders of the major religious denominations in the state. You know, the bishop of the United Methodist Church in Mississippi is an African American. The head of the National Baptist Convention, the largest Black religious denomination in America, is in Jackson, Mississippi. You have to have a relationship with those people because they’re important. But when you don’t have the relationship, either because you choose not to or for whatever reason you don’t, then that’s a failure on your part. Sometimes one’s weakness can become their strength, as long as they acknowledge that weakness. But if you try to defend or cover up that weakness, then you indeed have a problem.
Would you say that Cindy Hyde-Smith is a racist?
I’d say that she demonstrates the lack of sensitivity to issues around race. I don’t want to give her that title, but I would say if she asked me, “What can I do to understand more of the plight of African Americans in Mississippi,” I’d say, “Just go talk to them.” But you talk to them, not at them or down to them. You talk to them. I think from the beginning of this conversation: The most difficult conversation to have in this state and indeed this country is a discussion around race.
I’ve found my white contemporaries, they want to pick the Black person to talk to about race. If they talk to one, well he’s confrontational, so I want to talk to somebody who can work it out. Well that’s not for you to choose, you know what I’m saying? One of the real issues we have in this state is that when we are advocating for diversity and inclusion, a traditional white group will pick somebody Black who they already get along with rather than saying to the Black community, “Send me somebody who you’re comfortable with in representing your views.” In other words, the white group picks the Black person to come. They don’t say to the Black group, “Send my your representative.” That’s a faux pas that occurs in this state on almost a daily basis. Because it’s a certain comfort level that people are looking for, and it’s when that comfort level is not where it should be when they choose not to engage in that discussion.
So that’s why race is still a difficult conversation here in Mississippi. If you look at the board of directors at the banks that are chartered here in the state of Mississippi, a majority of them are all white. If you look at insurance companies and other corporations, majority white. Some that are public, some are private, but nonetheless, they have Black customers. The higher you go in the organization, the whiter it is. And that’s a reality. And so when you raise this question, inevitably somebody will come back, “Well, if I could find a qualified one…” What’s a qualified one? Do they have to be faster than a speeding bullet? Do they have to be able to leap buildings in a single bound? If you’re not looking for superman or superwoman, you ought to be able to find someone of color to include in your business if that’s what you want to do.
Mississippi has this long history of very influential lawmakers in Washington, particularly this outsize influence over federal money. Mississippi relies more on the federal dollar than any state in the nation. Cindy Hyde-Smith sits on appropriations. Do you think she’s pulling her weight for Mississippi? Is she able to be effective in that role?
Thad Cochran set a high bar. As you know, on his perch, he procured more resources for the state of Mississippi than any other senator in the country. So you have to temper that with the fact that for every dollar we send to Washington, we get three dollars back. So basically we are dependent on the largesse of the federal government. And if, for whatever reason, we have a person who doesn’t understand that, I don’t care how proud you are, you’re still a representative of a state that’s poor. And so you have to support Medicaid expansion that would bring billions of dollars to your state where the majority of your counties are underserved. But she’s not willing to promote that because it’s controversial. That’s not leadership. It doesn’t matter that the substantial number of those persons who would benefit from those dollars are African American. They’re still your citizens. The leadership issue on the flag — I mean, she should’ve been front and center on that. This is our state, and we’ve got to get out of this thing that for whatever reason, I can’t get involved in that. I wish her well, but the bar is real high for her to succeed. And unless she changes her trajectory, she will have a tough ticket in Washington.
Mississippi has never elected an African American statewide official, by popular vote at least. Is Mississippi ready, in your mind, to do that this November with Mike Espy?
I am an eternal optimist. If that chance presents itself on Nov. 3, I know of no better person to crack that ceiling than Mike Espy at this point in time.
Congressman, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you. It’s impossible to have a conversation about race in Mississippi politics without having that conversation with you. I appreciate not only your time, but your insights and your years of experience in dealing with this exact issue. Thank you so much for talking with me and us.
I appreciate you doing it, but I also appreciate the level of research that you all (at Mississippi Today) do on so many of the things that traditional people won’t write for whatever reason. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re still kind of sucking wind. It doesn’t matter if people like it or not. The question is, “Is it true?” And if it is, in fact, the truth, why shouldn’t we print it? I think that’s been one of our shortcomings as a state. For whatever reason, certain things were taboo like race – the notion that there’s certain things you just don’t print or say for fear of reprisal or being ostracized or whatever.