Stay Updated on Developing Stories

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

Washington(CNN) 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 speaks during a committee business meeting on Capitol Hill March 28, 2022.

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 heads into 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."

Ashley Semler contributed to this report.