A smile raced across my face when I learned that a lawsuit had been filed against former President Donald J. Trump for inciting the insurrection, which some people describe as a failed coup, at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. I am no fan of old 45, with his strange sartorial choices in neckties, wacky comb-over and penchant for tanning beds. Let’s not forget his unwavering affection for wayward evangelical ministers and white supremacists like the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. Those latter two groups and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, are also named in the litigation.
I wish Stephen Miller, Trump’s White House adviser on immigration and all things racist, also had been included. Am I getting too greedy?
My delight over the lawsuit wasn’t just that it appeared the former president could be forced to take responsibility for his despicable, dangerous and undemocratic behavior on a day that will live in political infamy. Rather, my joy was inspired by the fact that the legal action was taken on behalf of U.S. Representative Bennie Thompson (Mississippi 2nd District).
I remember him from the 1970s when I was a newly minted community organizer in Jackson, MS., determined to bring racial and social justice. I and others, including Randall Pinkston, who backed then worked at WLBT-TV, admired Thompson as an unrepentant civil rights leader in Mississippi—Bolton, MS. to be exact.
“In my early days as a reporter trainee, I did an interview with Mr. Thompson when he ran a community action program on Rose Street. I also remember covering his 'victory parade' when he was elected mayor of Bolton,” Pinkston said during a recent email exchange in which we reminisced about our experiences. He mentioned that Thompson “sent a lovely letter to my mother for her 90th birthday celebration. It was delivered by State Senator Joseph Thomas, a long-time friend of the family in Yazoo City.”
Pinkston called Thompson an “outstanding representative “who focuses on the need and concerns of the constituents in his Congressional District and throughout Mississippi.
“[Thompson] speaks out, without fear or favor, in the cause of justice and equality,” added Pinkston, a former correspondent with CBS and Al Jazeera. The lawsuit underscores that truth.
The NAACP, working with the firm of Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll, brought the legal action on Thompson’s behalf. Speaking to the New York Times, Derrick Johnson, the NAACP’s president said, “If we do nothing, we can be assured these groups will continue to spread and grow in their boldness.
“We must curb the spread of white supremacy,” added Johnson.
The decision to rely on an 1871 law as the basis for the lawsuit surely wasn’t by accident. The Ku Klux Klan Act was hotly debated legislation according to government historical records. It was approved in the middle of the post-Civil War period known as Reconstruction and was intended to provide protection and to ensure former slaves’ rights were not trampled, particularly in the South, where Confederate Army veterans were not ready to claim defeat and certainly weren’t enthusiastic about Blacks gaining any political or economic footing.
President Ulysses S. Grant invoked the powers authorized in the act just a few months after its passage, hoping to quell attempts in South Carolina to use various measures to keep Blacks in their “places.”
Nevertheless, it’s clear the racists won. Enacting Black Codes and later Jim Crow laws that forced African Americans to spend most of the 20th Century fighting the Klan and Klan-like organizations.
With the election of Barack Obama many Blacks believed the country was on a new path. Trump shifted all that, however. In his policies, his political positions and rhetoric, he gave aid and comfort to racists organizations that in no small measure mimicked the behaviors of the original Ku Klux Klan; the construction of a gallows adorned with a noose during the insurrection offer ample evidence of the insurgents’ DNA.
The use by the NAACP and Thompson of the 1871 law is a reminder of the post Reconstruction Era. It is a reminder that the struggle for racial, economic and social justice has been long and remains unfinished. It is a reminder that white supremacists must be challenged and confronted every time, without hesitation. It is a call to protect and defend the country’s democracy.
Unfortunately, 43 Republican Senators could not find the strength to do the latter. They voted to acquit Trump. Now, the responsibility falls on elected officials like Thompson and others who have pledged to join him.
The lawsuit echoes many of the points made in the U.S. House of Representatives impeachment of Trump and the subsequent trial in the U.S. Senate prosecuted by a brilliant team of House Managers. Not unlike them, the NAACP and Thompson assert that to prevent the Electoral College count as prescribed in the Constitution, the “defendants acted in concert to incite and then carry out a riot at the Capitol by promoting an assembly of persons to engage in tumultuous and violent conduct or the threat of it that created grave danger of harm to the plaintiffs and to other members of Congress.”
They further insist in the lawsuit that “The insurrection at the Capitol was a direct and extended and foreseeable result of the defendants’ unlawful conspiracy.
“It was instigated according to a common plan that the defendants pursued since the election held in Nov. 2020, culminating in an assembly denominated as the ‘Save America’ rally held at the Ellipse in Washington, DC on January 6, 2021 during which defendants Trump and Giuliani incited a crowd of thousands to descend upon the Capitol,” continued the lawsuit.
Thompson, like so many other congressional representatives, was in the House Gallery that day. He said he heard gun shots and was told to take cover. He said he “feared” for his life and “worried” he might never see his family again.”
It likely wasn’t the first time Thompson had that feeling. Many of the folks I met in Mississippi during the 1970s knew what being in the civil rights movement or participating in that cause could mean death by white supremacists.
As a young community organizer in Jackson, Mississippi, which is just outside Bolton, I worked for Operation Shoestring, a nonprofit organization supported mostly by the Methodist Church. My assignment was working with welfare recipients, building leadership within the group of women to ensure they received the services the needed and deserved. I extended my reach, however, involving myself with a community of advocates, lawyers and educators pushing for civil rights, racial and economic equality. One group was Black Mississippians for Justice. It was through that effort that I met Thompson.
I often tell people that I came to fully understand the fight in which Black people were engaged when I lived in Mississippi. I came of age as a woman and an activist there, working first in Natchez, later West Point and finally Jackson. The level of poverty I witnessed was shocking; some families with whom I worked didn’t even have an outhouse.
Still, these were people for whom defeat was not an option; even if it were, they wouldn’t have chosen it. Many were deeply committed to the civil rights—some long before I was born. They wore psychological and physical scars that attested to the intensity of the battle. They gave me courage and helped to provide some context to the mission I had undertaken as a community organizer.
President Joe Biden has said he is dedicated to uniting the country. However, considering Senate Republicans vote to acquit Trump and the fact that the base of that party continue to support him, the way forward will not be easy. Trump has pledged to remain on the stage, despite the fact that he faces a barrage of lawsuits and other legal action unrelated to the attack on the Capitol. The recent Supreme Court ruling, permitting New York access to the former president’s tax return is just the beginning.
African Americans since the dawn of the 20th Century have effectively used the courts, coupled with direct action, to challenge racists and to effect change. The NAACP has been a prime driver in the demand that all are protected by the law. The Thompson lawsuit is within that tradition. It is also a rallying cry.
Who will join the NAACP and Thompson? Will leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement stand with them? Will Democratic Attorneys General join in the lawsuit?
This isn’t just Thompson’s fight. It belongs to all of us, particularly people of color who are in the sights of white supremacists. If we aren’t careful, we can see a repeated of the retrenchment the country witnessed after the Civil War, even with passage of that 1871 law.