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For Bennie Thompson, chairing January 6 investigation brings full circle a career spent on voting rights

For Bennie Thompson, the invasion of the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, was a significant moment of déjà vu. From his perch in the House gallery above the chamber that day, he couldn’t quite tell what was going on, until his wife phoned him to let him know what was unfolding on television. Then the Capitol Police came and instructed him — and other members — to crouch, and take off their congressional lapel pins, so they would not become targets for the intruders.

Thompson refused.

“People I know fought and died in this country for me to have the right to represent them and for them to have the right to vote,” Thompson told CNN. “I’m not going to let any insurrectionist, rioter, crazy person come here and take this pin.”

As a congressman from Mississippi, Thompson has been wearing a pin for 13 terms. He’s the only Democrat and the only Black member of the Mississippi congressional delegation — representing one of the poorest districts in the country. He’s also the chairman of the Homeland Security Committee and for the past year, chairman of the January 6th committee — a job unlike any other in American history.

For Thompson, leading the Congressional investigation into the attack on the US Capitol comes with an unprecedented mandate of reminding voters how much was almost lost that day. “Our democracy is at stake,” Thompson says. “We have to defend our democracy. We have to defend our government.”

For Thompson, 74, chairing the Jan. 6 committee is also about how his own personal history has come full circle.

As a product of the Jim Crow south, Thompson sees the right to vote — and be counted accurately in a free and fair election — as his life’s work.

Thompson’s congressional colleagues understand the history. “It’s an extraordinary arc in a political career,” says Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, a January 6 committee member. “He had to struggle for representation at the local level, at the county level, at the federal level.”

Indeed, as Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California, another January 6 committee member, points out, “It wasn’t possible in his state for a person of color to be elected until voting rights legislation.”

Reuben Anderson, a former Mississippi State Supreme Court Justice, agrees.

“So many Mississippians lost their lives over a the right to vote. That sticks with you for awhile,” he said.

Or a lifetime.

In Washington, Thompson is “Mr. Chairman,” but in his hometown of Bolton, Mississippi, he’s still Bennie. Home every weekend, back to the same small town where he ran as mayor in the 1970s, Bennie is a regular presence in his district. His good friend, NAACP Chair Derrick Johnson, said Thompson’s home office is like a town living room.

“People walk in, they sit down, they go get something to drink...It’s like the community office,” Johnson said.

And he’s never left the community. Thompson lives in the same brick ranch house, in the same affordable housing community he fought to build as mayor. And when he’s home, he drives around his 300 mile-long district, which includes much of the capital city Jackson and the rural Mississippi Delta. He likes to travel with his fishing pole and guns in the truck. “I will call friends and say, ‘Look, I’ll be in the area. Let’s go hunting.’”

And so they go.

It’s familiar terrain to Thompson, as are the memories of the deeply segregated South, where he went to schools attended only by Black students. His early education was at The “Bolton Colored School.” It was without indoor plumbing and had no cafeteria, no library, no counselor. There were no new books.

“I had never gone to school with a white student,” he recalls. “I had never been taught by a white teacher”

Until college in 1964.

The private, desegregated Tougaloo College was a revelation for the young Thompson. Not only was he in classes with white students, but he could also hear Black leaders speak to a mixed-race audience — something that was still not allowed in public buildings in Mississippi.

Back then, the Black Power movement found its voice at Tougaloo College, and Thompson found his.

Thompson decided Mississippi would remain his home and lifetime project, and he started by registering voters — including his mother.

“I told my mother how excited I was to go to Sunflower country to help register poor African Americans, to register and vote. And my mama said, you know, ‘We don’t vote here in Bolton.’”

Thompson changed that.

For years, the courts became his battleground as his local election wins were consistently challenged. And when he became Bolton’s first Black mayor in 1973 — winning by just 18 votes — he was sued once again by a white challenger.

“People said somehow I cheated, that it couldn’t be a lawful election,” Thompson recalls. “Fast forward. Some of the same comments that I heard back then resonated on January 6th.”

As Thompson leads a pivotal set of hearings on the January 6 attack on the Capitol, what does he want Americans to see?

“I want as an African American to be able to say to the world that I helped stabilize our government when insurrectionists tried to take over,” he says. “And the points that we will recommend when adopted will guarantee that those insurrectionists will never, ever do it again.”

Two education nonprofits to merge in the fall

Two education non-profits will be merging together in the Fall.

Philadelphia Futures and Steppingstone Scholars are merging creating an organization with a $10 million annual budget that will serve 3,000 city students a year.

The merger was made over an 18-month period and was aided by funding from the William Penn Foundation and the Nonprofit Repositioning Fund.

The decision was unanimously approved by the Board of Directors for both Philadelphia Futures and Steppingstone Scholars. Upon the official merger, which is subject to required governmental notices and approvals, the organizations will brand as a new entity.

“The merging of Steppingstone and Future is an unprecedented opportunity to better serve Philadelphia students through a wider reach and significantly enhanced programming,” said Sara L. Woods, president of Philadelphia Futures.

“Students are at the center of the work we have undertaken since December 2020,” Woods said. “Their voices and strengths have led Futures and Steppingstone to this moment. As we unite our services and programs, our goals are clear.

“We aim to increase pathways for life-sustaining careers by helping more students in the District persist and graduate from high school, as well as successfully earn a college degree or other postsecondary credential,” Woods added.

Founded in 1989, Philadelphia Futures provides support to Philadelphia’s low-income, first generation-to-college students with the tools, resources and opportunities necessary for admission and success in college.

Steppingstone Scholars was founded in 1999 and has provided academic enrichment programs and support to underserved students, their families and schools. The nonprofit serves students ages 10-24 by creating pathways beginning in middle school to college and career.

The new entity will be the preeminent organization in the city partnering with schools, colleges, and businesses to provide real pathways for students from low-income and underserved communities.

The nonprofit will have 71 employees total and 22 of those staff members will be embedded in the 22 of the School District of Philadelphia schools. By 2024, the nonprofit aims to serve 5,000 students annually.

Nearly $4.5 million will be spent annually on programming that will focus on creating a college and career culture and to support educational transitions to ensure graduation from high school.

In the next year, 300 internships will be provided to high school and college students.

The new entity will also have 21 partnerships that will provide college courses for credit to high school students, scholarship opportunities and collaboration around student advising and retention efforts to ensure college success.

“Both organizations were created out of a deep and abiding love for our city’s children,” said Sean E. Vereen, president of Steppingstone Scholars.

“That love leads us to a shared mission that creating educational and career opportunities for young people is the keystone to making Philadelphia a more just, livable, and prosperous city,” Vereen said.

“In merging, we bring together decades of expertise, capital, and partnerships, as well as talented staff committed to moving the needle on student success. This decision is about Philadelphia and the city we believe it can be, when we invest in our children,” Vereen added.

Woods and Vereen will serve as co-presidents and lead an executive team of eight. Woods will oversee organizational operations and innovation, while Vereen will oversee student outcomes and experience.

A reconstituted board of directors will be co-led by Steppingstone Scholars chair Deborah Hirtle and Philadelphia Futures chair Raj Tewari.

“As we enter this exciting new chapter, we believe our merged organizations will be even better positioned and prepared to meet the changing needs of Philadelphia students and deliver on our promise of creating pathways to economic mobility,” Hirtle said.

'Enough is enough' say thousands who march and demand new gun measures

WASHINGTON — Thousands of people rallied on the National Mall and across the United States on Saturday in a renewed push for gun control measures after recent deadly mass shootings from Uvalde, Texas, to Buffalo, New York, that activists say should compel Congress to act.

“Enough is enough,” District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser told the second March for Our Lives rally in her city. “I speak as a mayor, a mom, and I speak for millions of Americans and America’s mayors who are demanding that Congress do its job. And its job is to protect us, to protect our children from gun violence.”

Speaker after speaker in Washington called on senators, who are seen as a major impediment to legislation, to act or face being voted out of office, especially given the shock to the nation’s conscience after 19 children and two teachers were killed May 24 at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

“If our government can’t do anything to stop 19 kids from being killed and slaughtered in their own school, and decapitated, it’s time to change who is in government,” said David Hogg, a survivor of the 2018 shooting that killed 17 students and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

A co-founder of the March For Our Lives organization that was created after that shooting and held its first rally in Washington not long afterward, Hogg led the crowd in chants of “Vote them out.”

Another Parkland survivor and group co-founder, X Gonzalez, delivered an impassioned, profanity-laced plea to Congress for change. “We are being murdered,” she screamed and implored Congress to “act your age, not your shoe size.”

Added Yolanda King, granddaughter of Martin Luther King Jr.: “This time is different because this isn’t about politics. It’s about morality. Not right and left, but right and wrong, and that doesn’t just mean thoughts and prayers. That means courage and action.”

Manuel Oliver, whose son, Joaquin, was killed in the Parkland shooting, called on students “to avoid going back to school until our elected leaders stop avoiding the crisis of gun violence in America and start acting to save our lives.”

Hundreds gathered at an amphitheater in Parkland, where Debra Hixon, whose husband, high school athletic director Chris Hixon, died in the shooting, said it is “all too easy” for young men to walk into stores and buy weapons.

“Going home to an empty bed and an empty seat at the table is a constant reminder that he is gone,” said Hixon, who now serves as a school board member. “We weren’t done making memories, sharing dreams and living life together. Gun violence ripped that away from my family.”

President Joe Biden, who was in California when the Washington rally began, said his message to demonstrators was “keep marching” and added that he is “mildly optimistic” about legislative negotiations to address gun violence. Biden recently delivered an impassioned address to the nation in which he called for several steps, including raising the age limit for buying assault-style weapons.

In New York City, Mayor Eric Adams, who campaigned on reining in violence in the nation’s largest city, joined state Attorney General Letitia James, who is suing the National Rifle Association, in leading activists across the Brooklyn Bridge.

“Nothing happens in this country until young people stand up — not politicians,” James said.

Joining the call for change were hundreds of people who rallied in a park outside the courthouse in Portland, Maine, before they marched through the Old Port and gathered outside of City Hall. At one point, they chanted, “Hey, hey, hey, NRA. How many kids did you kill today.”

John Wuesthoff, a retired lawyer in Portland, said he was waving an American flag during the rally as a reminder that gun control is “not un-American.”

“It’s very American to have reasonable regulations to save the lives of our children,” he said.

The passion that the issue stirs was clear in Washington when a young man jumped the barricade and tried to rush the stage before being intercepted by security. The incident caused a brief panic as people began to scatter.

Organizers hoped the second March for Our Lives rally would draw as many as 50,000 people to the Washington Monument, though the crowd seemed closer to 30,000. The 2018 event attracted more than 200,000 people, but the focus this time was on smaller marches at an estimated 300 locations.

The youth-led movement created after the Parkland shooting successfully pressured the Republican-dominated Florida state government to enact sweeping gun control changes. The group did not match that at the national level, but has persisted in advocating for gun restrictions since then, as well as participating in voter registration drives.

Survivors of mass shootings and other incidents of gun violence have lobbied legislators and testified on Capitol Hill this week. Among them was Miah Cerrillo, an 11-year-old girl who survived the shooting at Robb Elementary. She described for lawmakers how she covered herself with a dead classmate’s blood to avoid being shot.

The House has passed bills to raise the age limit to buy semi-automatic weapons and establish federal “red flag” laws. A bipartisan group of senators had hoped to reach agreement this week on a framework for addressing the issue and held talks Friday, but no deal was announced.

Jan. 6 hearing doesn't change many minds in Philadelphia suburbs

BENSALEM — When he was in elementary school, Dan Pigott just happened to be visiting Washington with his parents in 1973 as the Watergate hearings were underway. He managed to get a seat to watch history unfold.

That memory was particularly resonant Thursday night when Pigott watched the opening hearing as another special congressional committee unveiled evidence of what it said was then-President Donald’ Trump’s “attempted coup” on Jan. 6, 2021, when he beckoned supporters to come to Washington as part of his effort to overturn his 2020 election defeat.

“I think what this administration did is far worse. We all see what happened,” said Pigott, 58, a Democrat who lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. “I’m convinced he instigated all of it. ... I think this is the worst attack on our system of government since the Civil War.”

His was hardly a consensus view. Others among more than a dozen voters interviewed — in coffee shops, stores and by phone — dismissed the hearing as “rubbish,” or simply did not watch.

But opinions in Bucks County, a blend of rolling farmland and densely packed well-to-do suburbs, matter more than most places because it is one of a small cluster of areas in the country where both major political parties are still competitive. And few states will be more central to the midterm elections, with highly competitive races for the U.S. Senate and governor.

The Jan. 6 riots are certain to play a prominent role in both. The Republican gubernatorial candidate, Doug Mastriano, was seen outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, and has supported Trump’s false assertions that the election in 2020 was stolen. The GOP Senate nominee, Dr. Mehmet Oz, was endorsed by Trump.

The Nielsen Company reported Friday that an estimated 20 million people watched Thursday night’s hearing on the 12 television networks that aired it.

The depth of political fallout will be measured in the coming months. Republicans so far have tried to parry criticism of Trump for the riot by emphasizing rising inflation — consumer prices climbed 8.6% in May, the worst reading in more than 40 years — and blaming Democrats. The competition will be for that narrow band of voters who remain persuadable.

Bucks County is closely watched precisely because it has an ample supply of swing voters. It sided with Democrats in the presidential contests in 2016 and 2020, but helped reelect GOP Sen. Patrick Toomey in 2016 and sent Republican Brian Fitzpatrick to the House in 2016, reelecting him in 2018 and 2020. President Joe Biden carried the county by more than four percentage points over Trump in 2020.

In the interviews, Democrats said they wanted to see Trump held accountable. Republicans said the hearings amounted to a concocted excuse to persecute the former president.

Others simply had tuned out. One woman who declined to give her name said she was on her way to work with a coffee and doughnut bag in hand. Asked about the hearings she looked momentarily confused. “The what?” she asked.

“I hope that it is impossible to ignore the evidence that they come up with,” Pigott said. “I believe and I don’t think this is original but 40% always vote on the Democratic side and 40% on the Republican so it’s the 20%. Is it gonna impact them? I’m hoping it does.”

Ron Soto, 84, a retired truck driver from Langhorne, is an immovable Trump supporter. He sounded aghast that anyone would tune into the hearing. He was watching Fox News, he said, which talked about the hearings, but didn’t air it.

“Who would watch that rubbish anyway? All they’re trying to do is isolate Trump and pick on all of his friends,” he said. “They want to find him guilty of something.”

Judy Dixon, 62, of Doylestown, said she’s a Democrat and watched because she heard there was going to be new information. She thought the hearing showed for the first time how closely Trump was involved in the events of Jan. 6.

“I think for a long time there’s been the thought that we were only prosecuting the low-level people that were breaking in. The committee clearly said it was driven by Trump,” she said.

Will the hearings change anyone’s mind about the events of Jan. 6?

“I don’t know if it’ll change minds now but it will go down in history and people will read it and get that information and digest. Maybe in the moment you won’t want to digest the facts but one day,” she said.

She recalled her parents’ political views and the Iran-Contra affair, when the Reagan administration secretly sold arms to Iran in exchange for freedom of Western hostages in the Middle East, and passed the proceeds the contra rebels in Nicaragua for their fight against the Marxist Sandinista government.

“When I was growing up my parents were Ronald Reagan Republicans and Oliver North “ — a Marine and military aide at the center of the scandal — “was the story and selling arms to Nicaragua and I remember you parrot what your parents think. They were Republicans I was a Republican. I read later about that hearing and all the information that was published that made me the Democrat I am today,” she said.

She added, “Hopefully this will be the same thing for this generation coming up.”

Mike Domanico operates a Trump merchandise store in Bensalem, not far from Philadelphia, with another one set to open in central Bucks County. He’s a Republican and a stalwart Trump supporter.

“I watched as much as I could stomach and then I was like this is a bunch of crap,” he said. “I couldn’t take it any more.”

Kathie Beans, 68, of Warrington, is a Democrat and tuned in because she’s a self-described “political junkie.” She’s skeptical the hearing will have any impact.

“I see these Trump flags still flying. I live in a very Democratic area but do they come out and vote?” she said. “People just — they’re busy with their lives.”

People bustling about their morning routines Friday reflected that.

John Helpburn, who said he votes Democratic now but has voted for Republicans, worked overtime last night at his job as a state worker and missed the hearing. He said he would have watched it if he’d been home but was ambivalent about the impact. High gas and grocery prices were the biggest issues for him.

Nicole Suto, who recently moved from New Jersey to Bucks County, said she didn’t realize the hearings were on TV but said she would watch them later on TikTok.