Jan. 6 committee Chair Bennie Thompson says the U.S. came close to losing democracy

Mississippi Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson is facing one of the most high-profile moments in a political career spanning more than 50 years — leading this month’s hearings intended to show Americans what fueled the violence of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

Some who tune in to Thursday’s prime-time hearing will encounter for the first time the chairman, a political leader from rural Mississippi with deep roots in civil rights activism.

“I’m a passionate believer that, in a democracy you have to follow the rule of law,” Thompson 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.”

That personal history, said Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, made Thompson the perfect fit to chair the select committee investigating the insurrection.

“We have so many people over here who are much more interested in the headline than they are in making headway,” Clyburn recently told NPR. “Bennie is not interested in making the headlines.”

While Thompson’s work as a small town leader taught him how to listen, a skill critical for getting to the bottom of the insurrection, Clyburn said the most important quality he brings to his role leading the committee is his search for a more perfect union.

“Here he is, growing up, under the imperfections of this country — being affected adversely by this country’s imperfections. Yet he is one being looked to now to do what is necessary to preserve it,” Clyburn said.

From segregation to rising through the ranks to Congress

The Mississippi town where Thompson grew up, Bolton, had a whites-only pool and park. As a teen, he traveled 51 miles past two schools for whites to attend one for Black students.

“I never saw my hometown of Bolton when I was in high school during the day, because I caught the bus at night. It was so early in the morning, I got back so late, it was dark,” he told a national civil rights symposium in 1989 as he was fighting for equal access for Black people in education and at the ballot box.

By then, Thompson had defied racial barriers to become an alderman in that same town, followed by roles as a mayor and then county supervisor.

In 1993, he won a special election to represent his majority African American district in Congress, which is anchored by the state capital in Jackson. Three years ago, he became chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“It’s kind of interesting that somebody like Bennie Thompson, with the experiences he had growing up in Mississippi, would be the one that was out there trying to keep this democracy on track,” said Clyburn, a South Carolina Democrat who is a bit of a kindred spirit and is often seen having extended conversations with him during hours-long floor votes.

When House Democrats moved last year to create the select committee to investigate how the deadly siege on the Capitol originated and transpired, Clyburn saw Thompson as a perfect fit to lead it. He made the case to Speaker Nancy Pelosi that Thompson’s civil rights work and unflappable nature positioned him to face off against powerful opponents, including former President Donald Trump and a vast share of the Republican Party.

Pelosi appeared to agree, selecting him as chairman after the panel was created.

“Chairman Thompson is the chair of one of the committees of jurisdiction, Homeland Security, and this was an assault on our homeland security and he commands a great deal of respect in our caucus and I’m very proud of what he is doing,” Pelosi told NPR.

Managing the committee fairly while learning the truth

Now, Thompson is readying his committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans for hearings starting Thursday. The hearings draw from interviews with more than 1,000 witnesses and more than 100,000 pieces of evidence.

The committee’s makeup has brought about new connections with Republicans for the lifelong Democrat.

The committee’s vice chair, Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, said she did not really know him before the committee was formed a year ago.

She’s been watching how he manages the committee and the issues and she’s been “really impressed with him,” particularly as Thompson steers clear of partisan arguments and debate that could slow down the committee’s work, Cheney said.

“He’s very focused always on the substance and on the facts,” she said.

Thompson says he’s calling it as he sees it on the investigation into the Jan. 6 attack that was intended to keep Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results. And he says he’s gained a new education about the danger the country faced that day, which he aims to share through the hearings.

For Thompson, preserving democracy today means telling the full story of the attack on the Capitol and ensuring its moment in history is one that Americans never forget.

“I have learned a lot about how perilously close we came on January 6 to losing this democracy as a lot of us have come to know and love it.”

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Transcript :

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Mississippi Democrat Bennie Thompson is facing one of the biggest moments in a political career that has spanned more than 50 years. The chairman of the House select committee investigating the January 6 attack on the Capitol will lead the public hearings that start tomorrow evening. As NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales reports, working as a civil rights activist in the South helped prepare Thompson for this moment.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: As a young boy, Bennie Thompson grew up in a Mississippi town that had a whites only pool and park. As a teen, he traveled 51 miles past two schools for whites so he could attend one for Blacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BENNIE THOMPSON: I never saw my hometown of Bolton when I was in high school during the day because I caught the bus at night. It was so early in the morning. And I got back so late, it was dark.

GRISALES: That’s Thompson at a national civil rights symposium in 1989 as he fought for equal access in education and at the ballot box.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMPSON: Some of the things we can’t forget.

GRISALES: By then, Thompson had defied racial barriers to become an alderman in Bolton, followed by roles as a mayor and then county supervisor. In 1993, Thompson won a special election to represent his predominantly African American district in Congress, and he’s done so ever since. Three years ago, he became chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

JIM CLYBURN: It’s kind of interesting that somebody like Bennie Thompson, with the experiences he had growing up in Mississippi, would be the one that’s out there trying to keep this democracy on track.

GRISALES: That’s Majority Whip Jim Clyburn at his Capitol Hill office. The South Carolina Democrat is a bit of a kindred spirit to Thompson. And the two often chat away during extended floor votes. When House Democrats moved last year to create a select committee to investigate the January 6 attack, Clyburn saw Thompson as the perfect fit to lead it. And he made that case to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Thompson, Clyburn says, knows how to keep his eye on the prize.

CLYBURN: We have so many people over here who are much more interested in the headlines than they are in making headway. Bennie is not interested in making headlines.

GRISALES: Clyburn said Thompson’s civil rights work and unflappable nature positioned him to face off against powerful opponents, including former President Trump and a vast share of the Republican Party. Pelosi seems to agree.

NANCY PELOSI: Chairman Thompson is the chair of one of the committees of jurisdiction, homeland security. And this was assault on her homeland security. And he commands a great deal of respect in our caucus. I’m very proud of what he is doing.

GRISALES: With Thompson at the helm, he’s now readying his committee of seven Democrats and two Republicans for hearings starting this week. Thompson agrees with assessments that his civil rights activism informs that role today.

THOMPSON: I’m a passionate believer that in a democracy, you have to follow the rule of law. 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.

GRISALES: The committee’s hearings are built on interviews with more than 1,000 witnesses and more than 100,000 documents. Thompson says he’s also working across the aisle in a new way, developing connections with the two GOP members on the panel. Here’s Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney, the committee’s vice chair.

LIZ CHENEY: The chairman and I did not really even know each other before. So watching how he manages the committee, how he manages the issues we’re dealing with, you know, I’ve been really impressed with him.

GRISALES: Cheney says Thompson steers clear of partisan arguments and debate that could slow down the committee’s work.

CHENEY: He’s very focused always on the substance and on the facts.

GRISALES: Through the January 6 investigation, Thompson says he’s calling it as he sees it. And he says he’s gained a new education about the danger the country faced that day, an education that will be more fully shared with Americans.

THOMPSON: I have learned a lot about how perilously close we came on January 6 to losing this democracy.

GRISALES: Clyburn says Thompson’s work as a small-town leader taught him how to listen, a skill that today is critical to getting to the bottom of the insurrection. He says it’s all part of Thompson’s search for a more perfect union.

CLYBURN: Here he is, growing up under the imperfections of this country. Yet, he is the one being looked to now to do what is necessary to preserve it.

GRISALES: For Thompson, preserving democracy today means telling the full story of the January 6 riot and ensuring its moment in history is one that Americans will never forget.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, the Capitol.

(SOUNDBITE OF YUSSEF KAMAAL’S “YO CHAVEZ”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.