Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., joins House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., right, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2017. Credit: J. Scott Applewhite, Associated Press

Almost all of the Washington, D.C., political power structure and the national media, including major television networks, focused on Bennie Thompson this morning as he convened the House select committee that was formed to investigate the causes of the Jan. 6 attack on the United States Capitol.

Thompson, who has represented Mississippi’s 2nd District since 1993 as the state’s sole Black federally elected official, was tabbed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to chair the high profile panel.

Thompson in his opening remarks Tuesday after convening the select committee said, “while we have a lot to uncover, there are a few things we already know.

“We know that the insurrection on Jan. 6th was a violent attack that involved vicious assaults on law enforcement. We know there is evidence it was a coordinated, planned attack. We know that men and women who stormed the Capitol wanted to derail the peaceful transfer of power in this country. We know that seven people lost their lives, that more than 140 police officers suffered injuries. We know that efforts to subvert our democracy are ongoing, and a major part of the select committee’s work will be to find ways to eliminate that threat.

“We also know that the rioters came dangerously close to succeeding. If not for the heroism of the U.S. Capitol Police and the Metropolitan Police Department, many more lives might have been lost. And the rioters could have accomplished what they set out to do: upend American democracy.”

In the past, Mississippi has had U.S. senators and representatives who have served in high profile positions.

Trent Lott served as Senate majority leader and Democratic Jamie Whitten in the House and Thad Cochran in the Senate served as Appropriations chairs. Former Democratic senators John Stennis and Jim Eastland both held high profile positions.

Of course, Thompson has been in a crucial, though, not as high a profile post for some time. Thomson has chaired the Homeland Security Committee since the Democrats regained control of the House in 2018. It was in his capacity as Homeland Security chair that Pelosi tabbed Thompson for the more high profile post of investigating the invasion of the Capitol by people loyal to former President Donald Trump on Jan. 6 as Congress undertook its constitutional duty of certifying Joe Biden, the winner of the November election, as the next president.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Thompson recently said of the select panel’s work “We have to get it right.” He said if the panel is successful and find ways to prevent similar future attacks, “I would have made what I think is the most valuable contribution to this great democracy.”

Thompson represents much of western Mississippi, including much of the rural Delta and much of urban Jackson. He is only the second African American elected to Congress from Mississippi since the 1800s. He replaced the first African American – Mike Espy – who stepped down from the House seat in 1992 when he was appointed to serve as the secretary of Agriculture in the Bill Clinton administration.

As the only Democrat in the delegation, Thompson often has been the No. 1 target of political attacks by the state’s Republican establishment.

Thompson introduced legislation to establish a bipartisan commission that would be composed of non-politicians. He negotiated the legislation with House Republicans. But the Senate Republicans, including Mississippi’s Roger Wicker and Cindy Hyde-Smith, blocked the passage of the legislation designed to investigate the Jan. 6 attacks, leading to the House instead establishing the select committee composed of House Democrats and Republicans and chaired by Thompson.

“I think it is a really important moment for Mississippi, for all Mississippians,” Nathan Shrader, chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Millsaps College in Jackson, said of Thompson’s appointment. Shrader said it is important for a number of reasons, including allowing the nation to see the diversity of Mississippi – viewed nationally as a deep red state, yet, a veteran Democrat from the state has been tabbed for the important post.

Shrader said he believes Thompson is a good choice to chair the committee because he is safe politically in his district and safe politically in Washington, D.C., as being part of the leadership, and can focus on finding out what happened on Jan. 6.

“He has nothing to fear. He is somebody who does not have to back down to anyone,” he said.

In a 2018 interview with Mississippi Today, Thompson said of the criticism leveled his way, “People write what they want and most of those people have never even had a conversation with me.”

He added, “I have been married to the same woman for 50 years. I have lived in this town (Bolton) for all 70 of my years. I have belonged to the same church, not denomination, the same church my whole life. I am not anything other than somebody who decided very early in life he wanted to try to make a difference in this state. I ran for public office when I was 20 years old.

“I went to school here. I raised my family here and you know I am basically a Mississippi home grown product.”

In the 1960s, Thompson had to go to federal court to force the local election commission to seat him after he was elected the first Black mayor of his hometown of Bolton in western Hinds County. Today’s the nation’s eyes will be on him.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.