Thompson, Bennie G. 1948–
Bennie G. Thompson 1948–
Congressman from Mississippi
A longtime politician and grassroots political activist, Bennie G. Thompson has been a member of the United States Congress since 1993. Representing Mississippi’s second congressional district, a mostly African American, rural, and economically distressed area, Thompson has made economic opportunity, and discrimination on account of race, gender, and class his chief issues. Unlike his predecessor in the second district seat, Mike Espy, Thompson has made few attempts to reach out to white voters or curry favor with conservative white businessmen and landowners. He believes that the struggle for African American civil rights is not over, and is a firm supporter of affirmative action programs. “For most of us who are over forty-five, we never had new textbooks in our community, we never had the opportunity to play in a public playground or swim in a public swimming pool, and so some of us take very seriously the notion of affirmative action because this was the only opportunity that many of us ever received,” Thompson was quoted by CQ’s Politics in America 2000 as having told his Congressional colleagues.
Thompson was born in Bolton, Mississippi, a small town about fifteen miles west of Jackson, in 1948. His mother, Annie Laura, was a school teacher. His father, Will, who died when Thompson was a teenager, worked as an auto mechanic. Although the family’s income was modest, the Thompsons were still better off than the average African American family in Bolton, most of whom were dependent upon the region’s agricultural enterprises. Thompson attended segregated local public schools and had little contact with Bolton’s white population. “You hear stories about blacks and whites being so close down south, but Bolton was always two separate communities. I never had a single white friend. Once, when I was about eleven, I went into town to get a part for my bicycle. The man at the store didn’t have it, and he asked me if that was all. I said ’Yes,’ and he said ’What you say, nigger? Didn’t no one ever teach to you say yessuh to a white man?’ That’s how it was,” Thompson told Joe Klein of Esquire.
After graduating from high school Thompson attended Tougaloo College, an all-African American liberal arts college in Mississippi. Thompson told CQ’s Politics in America 2000 that Tougaloo College “was there to open its arms to me [when] the number of colleges I could attend [was] significantly limited by the racial
Born on January 28, 1948 in Bolton, MS; son of Will Thompson (an auto mechanic), and Annie Laura Thompson (a teacher); married to London Johnson Thompson (a teacher); children: one daughter. Education: Tougaloo College, Tougaloo, MS, B.A in political science, 1968; Jackson State University, Jackson, MS, M.A., 1972; also completed extensive coursework towards a doctorate in public administration at the University of Southern Mississippi. Religion: Methodist.
Career: Worked briefly as a public school teacher in Madison, MS. Began political career as a member of the board of aldermen, Bolton, MS, 1969-73; mayor of Bolton, MS, 1973-80, supervisor of Hinds County, MS, 1980-93. Congressman from Mississippi’s second district, 1993-; serves on the House Committee on the Budget and the House Committeeon Agriculture.
Member; Board of trustees, Tougaloo College; board of directors, Southern Regional Council; board of directors, Housing Assistance Council.
Awards: Honorary doctor of laws degree from Claflin College; citations from the Housing Assistance Council and the National Black Nurses Foundation.
Addresses: Home— Bolton, MS. Office— 408 Long-worth House Office Building, Washington, DC 20515.
segregation that was endemic in the South.” At Tougaloo, Thompson joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and spent much of his free time registering African American voters throughout the Mississippi Delta. He also worked on civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s unsuccessful congressional campaign. It was Hamer’s inspirational example that led Thompson to consider a career in politics. Also, his work in voter registration made him see that the lack of African American politicians was a major reason for African American apathy towards the electoral process. Thompson received a bachelor’s degree in political science from Tougaloo in 1968.
In 1969, while employed as a teacher in nearby Madison, Mississippi, Thompson ran for the board of aldermen in his hometown of Bolton. He won a seat on the board (as did two other African Americans), but white local officials refused to accept the results of the election. Thompson and the other African American candidates filed a legal suit and a court order ultimately forced local officials to relent. “Within a few weeks after we won that,” Thompson said of the court battle to Klein, “I was fired from my teaching job for being a negative influence…and the draft board—the all-white draft board—decided to send me off to Vietnam. I challenged both of those things in court, too.” Thompson was never reinstated as a teacher but he did manage, through various appeals, to avoid military conscription.
Thompson is proud of the fact that he stayed in Mississippi after finishing college. Typically, educated southern African Americans went to the North or to California where racism was less oppressive and career opportunities were wider. “There are things I just can’t find words for… This place is important to me,” Thompson said of Bolton to Klein.
In 1973, Thompson was elected mayor of Bolton. An all-African American board of aldermen was elected along with him. Considering that local laws had effectively barred African Americans from voting in Mississippi until the 1960s, this was a breathtaking change in the political landscape. White incumbents challenged the election results in court, but Thompson and the other African Americans prevailed. As mayor of Bolton, Thompson had streets paved, housing renovated, and a new city hall constructed. He also had the town’s real estate reevaluated by a property appraiser. The findings showed that white officials had been deliberately undervaluing their property for years in order to avoid higher taxes. Many whites looked up the reevaluation as an act of revenge, but Thompson saw it as way of sweeping out corruption.
Thompson was criticized for focusing too much of his attention on Bolton’s poorest citizens, nearly all of whom were African American, while neglecting the concerns of the town’s more affluent white population. He defended his actions by pointing out that the poor were in the greatest need. “If I have two roads, a paved road with potholes in a white neighborhood and an unpaved one in a Black neighborhood, my priority is the unpaved road. Equality doesn’t mean spending the same amount of money on Blacks and whites. It means giving Blacks the same quality of service as whites,” Thompson told Klein.
Moving up the ladder of local politics, Thompson was elected to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors in 1979. His “good government” attitude went with him to the county board and brought him into an unlikely alliance with fellow supervisor Frank Bryan, a white Republican. “Bennie Thompson believes in open, honest, fair, taxpayer-responsive government that is open to scrutiny. Of course, he and I disagree on a whole bunch of other stuff like social programs, but we agree on things like open meetings and making county government more efficient,” Bryan told Klein.
In the 1980s, an African American majority congressional district was created in Mississippi. Running along the Mississippi River, the second district begins at Tunica County at the Arkansas border and goes south nearly to Natchez. Nine of Mississippi’s ten poorest counties are included in the second district. When Mike Espy was elected to the second district seat in 1986, he became the first African American congressman from Mississippi since the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. A political moderate from a well-to-do family in the funeral parlor business, Espy formed alliances with white power brokers in the Mississippi Delta and received a significant share of white votes.
In early 1993, Espy vacated his seat in the House of Representatives to become secretary of agriculture in the Clinton administration. A special election was called to fill the second district seat. Thompson, who had considered running for Congress when the African American-majority second district was first created but declined in favor of continuing in local politics, decided it was time to move onto the national scene. Although Thompson was one of the most prominent and powerful politicians in the state, he was seen as too rough-edged in his manner to be effective in Washington, and too much of a “black radical” to get enough of the white vote that was deemed necessary for victory. The early Democratic favorite in the second district race was Henry Espy, Mike Espy’s brother and the mayor of Clarksdale, who had the same smooth, middle-of-the-road style as his brother. The Democratic field also included Unita Blackwell, mayor of Mayers-ville, and James Meredith, a political activist who made history in the early 1960s when he became the first African American to attend the University of Mississippi. On the Republican side, the only candidate was Hayes Dent, an advisor to Mississippi Governor Kirk Fordice.
In an all-party primary election held in March of 1993, Dent, who had no rival for the Republican and conservative vote, came out on top with 34 percent of the total vote. Thompson was second with 28 percent, and Espy was third with 20 percent. Since election rules stated that only the top two primary candidates, regardless of party, could go on to the April runoff election, Espy and the other Democratic candidates threw their support to Thompson.
Thompson’s victory in the final election was not assured since Republicans, although they are a minority in the second district, traditionally come to the polls in strong numbers. Also, it was unclear whether the non-partisan moderate voters who had supported Mike Espy in the past, and had voted for Henry Espy in the primary, would be comfortable with the more abrasive and politically left-wing Thompson. “It goes back to voter turnout and which one can pick up the loose change out there on the table,” Chip Reynolds, a spokesman for the Mississippi Republican Party, told Kitty Cunningham of Congressional Quarterly.
While Dent’s campaign targeted moderate crossover voters, Thompson focused his attention on getting out as much of the African American vote as possible. He organized volunteers to spread the word at African American churches and among church-related women’s groups. A special push was made on Easter Sunday, which fell two days before the runoff election. “If we can touch all those bases on Sunday, then all we’ll have to do is go vote on Tuesday,” Thompson was quoted by Kenneth J. Cooper of the New York Times as telling his supporters. During their bitter campaign, Dent characterized Thompson as a big spending liberal who was not supportive of the region’s agricultural business interests. Thompson countered that agriculture profits went primarily to white businessmen and did not necessarily raise the standard of living of the average citizen. “We want to help agriculture. But we want agriculture to help everybody in this area,” Thompson explained to Cooper.
Thompson won the runoff election, garnering 55 percent of the vote to Dent’s 45 percent. The vote ran along racial lines, with Thompson receiving very few white votes. “I hope to bridge that gap, but right now it’s still very much divided,” Thompson said of the racial polarization in a post-election statement that was quoted in Congressional Quarterly.
In 1994 and 1996, the Republican Party presented two African American candidates for the second district seat (Bill Jordan, an attorney, in 1994; Danny Covington, a former Congressional aide, in 1996), but the incumbent Thompson easily won reelection both times. In 1998, the GOP ran no candidate against Thompson and his only opposition was the Libertarian Party’s William Chipman, whom he easily defeated.
As a member of Congress, Thompson has not modified the liberal views he advocated as a local politician. He has been strongly critical of budget cuts in federal poverty programs. “It makes no sense to force the poorest of Americans to go without food stamps, school lunches and baby formula in order to balance the budget and then turn around and give wealthy campaign contributors a huge tax cut,” he told his fellow House Budget Committee members, as quoted by CQ’s Politics in America 2000. As head of a Congressional Black Caucus task force on tobacco use, Thompson maintained that because tobacco companies had marketed their products to African American consumers, a share of the billions of dollars paid by the tobacco industry in lawsuits should be set aside for African American oriented programs, including anti-smoking campaigns. He also called for moderation in anti-tobacco legislation since the livelihoods of many African American farmers and merchants are dependent on tobacco sales. “We must position the minority community in this country so that it benefits proportionately from a tobacco bill,” Thompson told Michael A. Fletcher of the Washington Post.
In 1998, Thompson lodged a protest against the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks because only eight percent of the department’s employees were African American, while more than one-third of the population of Mississippi is African American. Thompson noted that most of the African Americans who were employed by the department were low level workers and aides. “It is difficult for me to believe that the agency could not find enough qualified Blacks in a state that is 36 percent Black. It is statistically impossible unless you maintain a pattern or practice of racial discrimination,” Thompson told Jet.
In 1999, Thompson led the drive to honor the nine African American students who integrated Little Rock’s Central High School in 1957 while facing opposition so fierce that troops had to be called in to ensure their safety. In a White House ceremony, the “Little Rock Nine” were awarded medals. According to Jet, Thompson called the ceremony a “rite of passage” that acknowledged the students’ bravery.
Thompson’s closest friends in Congress are fellow Black Caucus members Earl Hilliard of Alabama and James Clyburn of South Carolina. Known as the “Three Dudes,” Thompson, Hilliard, and Clyburn discuss politics during their morning walks together. Thompson is married to the former London Johnson, a teacher, and is the father of one child. In his spare time, Thompson enjoys fishing in the waters back home in Mississippi.
Barone, Michael, and Grant Ujifusa. The Almanac of American Politics 2000. Washington, DC: National Journal, 1999.
CQ’s Politics in America 2000. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1999.
Congressional Quarterly Almanac 1993. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, 1994.
Congressional Quarterly, April 3, 1993, p. 859; April 17, 1993, pp. 970-971.
Esquire, December 1985, pp. 258-262.
Jet, June 28, 1996, p. 10; January 26, 1998, p. 47; December 20, 1999, p. 10.
The Nation, July 5, 1999, p. 16.
New York Times, April 14, 1993, p. A14.
Washington Post, April 11, 1993, p. A12; May 17, 1998, p. A8.
Additional information for this profile was obtained from Bennie G. Thompson’s office website at www.house.gov/thompson
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