The career of Congressman Bennie Thompson reflects the arc of African American political power after the civil rights movement. Now in his thirteenth term in the United States House of Representatives, Thompson is the longest-serving African American elected official in the state of Mississippi.
Born in Bolton in 1948, Thompson graduated from Tougaloo College in 1968. While a Tougaloo student, he became active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), organizing voter registration drives for African Americans throughout the Mississippi Delta after the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. After graduation, he became a teacher and later earned a master’s degree from Jackson State University.
Thompson showed an early passion for politics, winning election to the Bolton Board of Alderman in 1969. He was part of the first generation of twentieth-century black elected officials in Mississippi, reflecting the changes brought on by the Voting Rights Act in black majority towns and counties. His early career also reflected white resistance to these changes. After winning his first election as alderman in 1969, Bolton’s white mayor refused to certify the results, claiming that Thompson and his allies had relied on illegal votes. After civil rights attorney Frank Parker filed a federal lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Dan Russell ruled that Thompson must be seated. Soon after, the all-white local draft board sent Thompson a draft notice and the Madison County School District chose not to renew his contract as a teacher. Parker again successfully fought these harassment efforts in the courts.
After four years of Bolton’s white mayor opposing his every initiative, Thompson ran for mayor in 1973 and won. He helped organize the Mississippi Association of Black Mayors, and in 1980 he won election to the Hinds County Board of Supervisors.
After Mike Espy resigned his House of Representatives seat to become Secretary of Agriculture in 1993, Thompson won a special election to replace him in Mississippi’s Second Congressional District, campaigning as a self-proclaimed activist and claiming that he would represent “those who do not have a traditional voice.” He thus became the state’s second African American congressman since Reconstruction. He has been re-elected thirteen times since, and in recent elections, he has received the votes of more than two-thirds of his district’s voters.
In Congress, Thompson has been an unapologetic liberal Democrat, working to help his black-majority district, which includes most of the Mississippi Delta. In 2000 he wrote legislation that created the National Institute for Minority Health and Health Care Disparities. After Hurricane Katrina struck Mississippi, he fought for disaster relief and worked to ensure that federal funds were properly allocated for Gulf Coast recovery. In 2007 he became chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. He consistently receives 100% approval ratings from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood, and far lower ratings from conservative organizations.
During his career, Thompson has evolved from being a civil rights activist demanding political power for Mississippi’s disfranchised African American population to a state power broker and influential member of the House of Representatives.
- Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, University of Southern Mississippi, “Oral History with Mayor Bennie G. Thompson” (13 February 1974)
- Chris Danielson, After Freedom Summer: How Race Realigned Mississippi Politics, 1965–1986 (2011)
- Jere Nash and Andy Taggart, Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976–2008 (2nd ed., 2009)