As one of the Founding Fathers, there is an obvious question always asked about Thomas Jefferson: How can a person fight for freedom for oneself and simultaneously deny freedom for others? How could Jefferson write the powerful words “All men are created equal” as part of the Declaration of Independence, yet own slaves as property? It is a paradox in which his words are true despite the self-contradiction by its author. It represents an odd combination where a principle of inspiration and equality is combined with hateful actions.
Despite the two being intertwined, we should always embrace the truth of Jefferson’s words and their meaning while rejecting the hypocrisy of his actions. Abraham Lincoln made a valid point by stating, “The assertion that ‘all men are created equal’ was of no practical use in effecting our separation from Great Britain and it was placed in the Declaration not for that, but for future use.” Lincoln had the insight to know that future generations would have to appeal to America’s foundational documents and constitutional principles when arguing for equality and justice.
In our constant fight for the rights, opportunities and protections connected with American democracy, we are faced again with the same hypocritical combination of people claiming to support the U.S. Constitution with their words but destroying its application by their actions — or inactions.
While the hearings by the Jan. 6 House select committee are intended to investigate the attack on the Capitol and the campaign to overturn the 2020 presidential election, the work and the findings from the committee are widely ignored by supporters of Donald Trump and dismissed as being a partisan witch hunt. Now that the Department of Justice has an ongoing criminal probe into the plot to overturn the election, one wonders what information would have remained hidden from the American people if the greatest national hearings since Watergate never occurred. When Lincoln mentioned “future use,” it is a timeless reference to the work and efforts of men and women, such as civil rights activist and Congressman Bennie Thompson.
While many are familiar with Congressman Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and the late John Lewis from Georgia as civil rights icons from the Deep South, the chairman of the Jan. 6 House committee, Bennie Thompson, is not a household name outside of his home state of Mississippi. Even the committee’s vice chair, Liz Cheney, said she did not know Bennie Thompson before the Jan. 6 committee was formed. In 1993, when former President Bill Clinton named Mike Espy, a young congressman representing Mississippi’s 2nd Congressional District and a rising star within the national Democratic Party, to agriculture secretary, Thompson won the special election to fill the vacant seat.
He went on to win 12 subsequent elections adding to a political career that spanned over 50 years. The 74-year-old lawmaker has become the longest-serving Black elected official representing the state of Mississippi and a fixture in Mississippi politics. Democratic candidates who want to win their election need Congressman Bennie Thompson’s blessing. Over the years, as the state’s only Black and Democrat congressman, he has become the party’s most powerful figure, considered the dean of the Mississippi delegation and a Democratic kingmaker in Mississippi politics. As a man who started by registering people to vote across rural Mississippi, leading sit-ins at lunch counters across the South, serving as mayor of Bolton, Mississippi, and then to the halls of Congress, he has remained humble throughout his journey. He generally keeps a low profile and is not one who seeks the spotlight, but his 50 years of public service have prepared him for this moment.
The nation would not have known about Bennie Thompson in this manner if it was not for House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Several members within the Democratic caucus sought to lead the committee, but Clyburn urged House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to appoint Thompson. Clyburn said he wanted Thompson in the role because the committee needed a leader who would be focused on the investigation and not see it as an opportunity to grandstand or score political points.
During the first hearing, Thompson’s opening remarks reminded the nation of hypocritical actions by those who claim to be patriotic: “I am from a part of the country where people justified the actions of slavery, the Ku Klux Klan and lynching. I’m reminded of that dark history as I hear voices today try and justify the actions of the insurrectionists on Jan. 6.”
Today’s politics is covered with hypocrisy. The words of the U.S. Constitution have very little influence on those who prefer to undermine democracy through violence. If democracy is to be embraced unconditionally, then the equality of rights, the transfer of power through free and fair elections, and the application of the rule of law must also be unconditionally embraced. Throughout our dark history and current events, democracy has been resisted on multiple fronts. For the insurrectionists and their enablers, democracy is selective in that it is followed only when it is convenient for one’s personal and political interests.
With the upcoming midterm election, Republicans are, ultimately, expected to take over the House. If the transfer of power occurs, it will not diminish the legacy of the Jan. 6 committee and its moment in the history of the American people being truthfully told the whole story of the attack on the Capitol. Nor will it take away from Thompson’s leadership and the culmination of his life’s work. He is well-deserving of the public recognition he is now receiving.