Reuben Anderson, Mississippi’s first African American Supreme Court justice of the modern era, had the responsibility of introducing former President Bill Clinton at the recent memorial ceremony for his longtime friends, Gov. and First Lady William and Elise Winter.
Before making that introduction, Anderson said he wanted to recognize “my congressman.” He described 2nd District U.S. Rep. Bennie Thompson as “the most unusual politician you will ever meet. He is not interested in getting rich. He is not interested in a higher office, and he shuns publicity.”
Reasonable people can differ on whether Anderson was being overly generous of “a fella I have known for over 50 years,” but what is not debatable is that Thompson will not be able to shun publicity this week.
Thompson, the Bolton native who has held the 2nd Congressional District post since 1993, will be at the center of attention as the special committee he chairs holds prime-time hearings beginning Thursday on the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol by those trying to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election. A big part of the committee’s work centers around the role of former President Donald Trump and his allies in the attack.
Thursday’s hearing begins at 7 p.m. It and a separate hearing next week will be carried live by most major networks and cable news channels — with the notable exception of Fox News.
“I want, as an African American, to be able to say to the world that I helped stabilize our government when insurrectionists tried to take over,” Thompson recently told CNN of the hearings.
Thompson — the dean of the Mississippi congressional delegation and indeed someone who has worked to avoid the limelight — has built his long political career on protecting democracy.
As a young adult in the 1960s, he worked to register African Americans to vote and to ensure votes were counted. Now leading the Jan. 6 Commission, he is effectively doing similar work: ensuring that legally cast votes are counted and that the nation’s representative democracy is protected from any future efforts to overturn the results of an election.
During a 2018 Mississippi Today interview, Thompson recalled in the 1960s as a Tougaloo College political science student working in the Mississippi Delta trying to register people to vote on behalf of civil rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer’s congressional bid.
“I was talking to my mother, and she was saying you know we don’t vote here in Bolton,” Thompson recalled. “It was a shock to me that I was up in Sunflower County helping register Black people to vote, and even in my hometown they didn’t enjoy the same luxury.”
Thompson’s auto mechanic father, who died in 1964 — the same year of passage of the federal Voting Rights Act designed to ensure racial minorities were not denied the right to vote — never got to vote. His mother, a schoolteacher, did, and most likely her first vote cast was for her son when he ran and was elected to the board of aldermen in his hometown of Bolton in 1969.
While Thompson won that election, it took a ruling of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure victory for him and for two other African Americans elected that year in Bolton.
Thursday’s Jan. 6 Commission hearings could be viewed as a continuation of Bennie Thompson’s life’s work in terms of trying to ensure fair elections.
“I’m a passionate believer that in a democracy you have to follow the rule of law,” Thompson recently told NPR. “It has nothing to do with individuals. It has nothing to do with wealth. It has nothing to do with status in the community. It’s the law. The law is colorblind.”