Saturday, Aug. 5, Congressman Bennie Thompson returned to Jackson as the keynote speaker for the Jackson Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). To nobody’s surprise, he more than lived up to expectations.
For nearly half an hour, Thompson praised the NAACP for its history of significant victories on behalf of not just African Americans, but other oppressed and working-class people, since its founding in 1909 and its existence in Mississippi since 1928.
Particular recent victories that may have otherwise gone undetected or recognized were: 1) the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling that convicted felons can no longer be denied the right to vote after they have served their sentences; and 2) the indictment of Donald Trump for conspiracy against the right to vote and have one’s vote counted. Thompson pointed to the fact that both resulted from actions of the NAACP.
He praised the organization for its work under leaders, such as Medgar Evers and Aaron Henry. He referenced the work in Jackson in past years, emanating from the Mason Temple, making the site of the present occasion, sacred ground. He talked about similar work today, calling those in the NAACP “hell-raisers” for the effective ways in which they have always raised important racial and community issues.
As much as the audience appreciated the discussion of the past and contemporary social, political, and economic history of the NAACP in Mississippi, it was even more appreciative of the issues to which he pointed today that need resolving. His speech cited a catalogue of the critical issues on the horizon. Among those to which he pointed were: 1) healthcare needs and the simultaneous closing of hospitals; 2) vacant JPS school buildings; 3) neglected parks and recreational facilities; 4) the authority and conduct of the Capitol Police; 5) misspent Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds; 6) Jackson’s water and infrastructure problems; 7) blighted neighborhoods; and 8) Republican political claims to projects that they had opposed when the bills were proposed.
In each case, Thompson challenged the NAACP to step-up and sound the alarm, and to step-up and organize the community to resolve the issue. In some cases, such as the closing of the hospitals and mental health facilities, the vacant school buildings, and the blighted neighborhoods, he suggested that there were no outcries despite how they affected the Black community. On the other hand, while he acknowledged some expressed opposition to the governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid, the abuses of the Capitol Police, the misspent TANF funds, and the continuing water problem in Jackson, he indicated that much more needed to be done by groups such as the NAACP.
The implication was that citizens, by and large, need to become more politically active. He even took the initiative in several cases to give examples of things that can be done.
For the public schools that have been closed, he suggested that they be re-purposed rather than being merely closed and abandoned. He noted they could be re-purposed to provide shelter for homeless people.
In the case of littered and ill-kept property, he suggested that incarcerated individuals could be used to upkeep it as they work off their incarceration sentences.
He also indicated that there is federal money available for many local needs, but that it goes unused because no one has made the applications for such grants. In that same breath, he urged young people, such as the NAACP scholarship recipients, to come back to or remain in Mississippi to help resolve these issues and bring about the needed changes and the necessary improvements.
The speech was long, but nobody was bored, as it was full of information and challenges. It was what close observers would label as a powerful, but typical Bennie Thompson “town-hall talk.”
He dwelt on his roots in Bolton and the surrounding communities and institutions. With pride, he talked about his all-Mississippi staff and the fact that his environment and upbringing, including attending Bolton Colored School, make it easy for him to take the “right” stands as a congressman and to pay close attention to the common citizens. He indicated that it was a bit of irony that current challenges now require people, such as these Bolton and Mississippi citizens, to save America as a democracy.
The history upon which he dwelt was a reminder, to those old enough to have lived through the times, and a guidepost for those too young to remember or who had not been otherwise exposed. The challenges were to the NAACP as a mature and ongoing organization, but also to all individuals and groups who deserve, long for, and pray for a better future.