Jan. 6 commission chairman once sympathized with black secessionist group that killed cops

Fifty years ago as a Mississippi alderman, Bennie Thompson defended the Republic of New Africa and participated in a news conference blaming cops for the group's violence even as FBI saw group as waging "guerrilla warfare."

Updated: October 4, 2021 - 10:06pm

Rep. Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who chairs the congressional commission investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, has been a vocal critic of an event he deems an insurrection and offered his sympathy to the police officers injured that day. He's even gone as far as to sue former President Donald Trump for responsibility for the melee.

But as a young African-American alderman in a small Mississippi community in 1971, Thompson placed himself on the opposite side, openly sympathizing with a secessionist group known as the Republic of New Africa and participating in a news conference blaming law enforcement for instigating clashes with the group that led to the killings of a police officer and the wounding of an FBI agent. Thompson's official biography makes no reference to the separatist RNA.

Thompson's affection for the RNA and its members — which FBI counterintelligence memos from the 1970s warned were threatening "guerrilla warfare" against the United States — was still intact as recently as 2013, when he openly campaigned on behalf of the group's former vice president to be mayor of Mississippi's largest city.

The congressman's advocacy on behalf of RNA — captured in documents, newspaper clippings and video footage retrieved from state, FBI and local law enforcement agency archives — is a pointed reminder that some of the far-left figures of a half century ago are now the Democratic Party's establishment leaders, their pasts now a fleeting footnote in the frenzied vitriol of modern-day Washington.

For instance, Thompson's Democratic colleague in Congress and the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois, famously cofounded the extremist Black Panthers chapter in Illinois in 1968 before he entered politics. Both the RNA and the Black Panthers were avowed supporters of insurrection, and at one point in 1967, armed Black Panthers stormed the state capitol in California.

Thompson, an affable, silver-haired politician known today simply as "Bennie," is one of Mississippi's longest serving congressmen and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. He dropped his NAACP-sponsored suit against Trump when he was appointed to lead the Jan. 6 commission.

The congressman had a much lower national profile back in 1971, when newspapers referred to him simply as Alderman B.G. Thompson from the community of Bolton, Miss., where he became acquainted with the RNA. He was never charged with any wrongdoing in connection with the group but on multiple occasions publicly sided with RNA members, even as law enforcement documented how the group had engaged in violence and was training for possible warfare.

Just the News was alerted to Thompson's embrace of the RNA by former federal law enforcement officials and Mississippi state officials who remembered his advocacy for the group and criticism of police. Just the News obtained video footage, newspaper clippings and law enforcement documents from historical archives and the FBI that validate their story.

RNA was founded in 1968 — hundreds of miles away from Mississippi — in Detroit, where its first major run-in with police led to the fatal shooting of an officer in 1969. Its members were charged with the killing but acquitted. Thompson was never linked to the shooting.

An FBI teletype recounted the shooting as having occurred when a Detroit patrol car occupied by two officers encountered a group of black males armed with rifles near where the RNA was holding its second annual meeting.

"Officers stopped and alit from scout car, and as they approached the group, they were fired upon," the teletype said. "Officer Czapski was killed and [redacted name] was seriously wounded."

By 1971, RNA was under constant FBI surveillance as it sought to move its "capital" to a 20-acre plot of farmland in Thompson's hometown of Bolton, Miss., with an adjunct headquarters in the capital city of Jackson, Miss., where RNA members threatened to renounce their U.S. citizenship and create a separate New Africa country in the U.S. Southeast. 

In spring 1971, Mississippi law enforcement got a tip that a member of the RNA wanted on an outstanding warrant might be traveling in Bolton in a stolen car, the memos show.  A squad of officers encountered the RNA members and arrested many of them for hindering the investigation. The fugitive and car weren't found, but many of the group's members were held on bond.

Thompson and a state lawmaker held a news conference after the arrests, one captured on video and preserved at the Mississippi Department of Archives & History. Thompson took the lead in bashing law enforcement for pursuing RNA, claiming officers were "often times beating and kicking those who emphasized their constitutional rights."

"My utmost concern in this matter is to see that people who reside or pass through the town of Bolton are treated fairly and given every opportunity afforded them by law," Thompson said in the archival news footage. "This was not done in the case of the Republic of New Africa. They are charged with obstructing justice. ... I believe this is an attempt on part of law enforcement officials to stop the Republic from building its community." 

Thompson suggested the group be left alone if it was law abiding. But by the time Thompson had uttered those words, the FBI had already determined the group had engaged in multiple violent crimes, and posed a national security threat with its stated plan to take over the states of Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina and Georgia to create a secessionist new country for African-Americans.

The sheriff who led the arrests told a far different story than Thompson's, saying officers who went to execute an arrest warrant were met with resistance and that officers found a large cache of weapons and ammunition inside the group's facility.

"They started slamming doors in our face and running against the doors and cursing us, and we advised them we was the law, we had to come in," Hinds County Sheriff Fred Thomas is quoted as saying on the archived videotape.  "...They didn't want us to carry out our duties. So we had to make arrests upon these people. And in the meantime, we recovered numerous amounts of guns, ammunition, radio equipment, and a good many more things."

Thompson and his congressional spokesman didn't immediately respond Monday to requests by email and phone for comment.

A few months later, a more tragic clash ensued when FBI agents and Jackson police raided a home where RNA members were holed up in August 1971. The police were met with gunfire, which killed one officer and wounded a second officer and an FBI agent.

Jackson Police Department records show that William Crumley, the FBI agent on scene, reported that when the officers arrived at the house, they announced they had a warrant, gave the occupants inside the house 75 seconds to surrender peacefully and then shot a canister of tear gas into the house to flush out the RNA members.

"Firing immediately started coming from inside the house," the police report said. "Crumley heard someone scream that he was hit."

The violent shootout made national headlines, and again Thompson came to the defense of the group.

An Associated Press article published Aug. 28, 1971 in The Greenwood Commonwealth newspaper in Mississippi under the headline "Blacks Accuse Police" reported Thompson joined some black community leaders in Jackson to announce the formation of a justice group to support the RNA in the aftermath of the fatal shooting.

While some black leaders urged an easing of tensions, Thompson's new group was more assertive, blaming police for the RNA's problems. At the press conference a speaker next to Thompson claimed that police were "out to kill some niggers," the AP reported.

A separate newspaper article in the Times-Picyaune included a more complete quote. "This kill some niggers attitude more than anything else is responsible for the policeman's death," a speaker alleged at the event where Thompson was featured. 

According to the 2013 book "We Will Shoot Back," which chronicled the black armed resistance in Mississippi personified by RNA, Thompson was part of a small group of moderate black politicians who "defended the New African nationalists' right to organize, but never actively participated."

Several members of the RNA were convicted of various crimes in the Jackson shooting, ranging from murder and attempted murder to sedition. The group's president Imari Obadele was among those charged and imprisoned. Most served time in prison before being released. One member accused of firing the fatal shot was sentenced to life in prison.

Declassified FBI documents chronicle the U.S. government's concerns about the RNA.

A March 1969 FBI memo described RNA as a "black extremist, separatist organization whose purpose is the formation of a black nation within the United States and a black army to defend and attack its enemies."

A year earlier, FBI informants who attended the RNA's organizing meeting in Detroit reported it was an offshoot of Malcom X's black nationalism movement that aspired "to form a 'Black Government or Black Nation' that would negotiate with the United States for several southern states in return for domestic tranquility."

"The delegates to this conference signed a Declaration of Independence disavowing their United States citizenship and they chose as the name of the new Black nation 'The Republic of New Africa,'" the memo added.

The FBI was deeply concerned, the memo said, that delegates of the group called for "guerrilla warfare against the United States and indicate that plans were being formulated to send Negroes out of the United States to be trained and equipped with the latest weapons."

The concerns were large enough that John Mitchell, President Nixon's attorney general, was briefed along with members of the intelligence community, the memo stated.

Documents obtained by law enforcement and historical researchers show RNA eyed creating a black nation out of five Southeast states: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia and South Carolina and held "nation-building classes" to further the cause.

The documents, echoing sentiments also reported to the FBI by informants, showed the group wanted to "get control of our land" through organizing African-Americans, holding votes and "by arms if necessary."

The group was blamed for several other violent crimes, including a deadly bank robbery in Manhattan and the fatal shooting of a police officer who stopped a car full of RNA members in New Mexico. Some of those perpetrators were arrested and convicted, while others fled to Cuba to escape prosecution, according to news stories.

FBI officials declined comment on the Republic of New Africa, referring Just the News to the bureau documents released on its FOIA Web site.

When asked how the FBI classifies the group today, spokesman Paul Bresson said: "The FBI does not designate domestic terrorist organizations. When it comes to domestic terrorism, our investigations focus solely on the criminal activity of individuals — regardless of group membership — that appears to be intended to intimidate or coerce the civilian population or influence the policy of the government by intimidation or coercion. It's important to note that membership in groups that espouse domestic extremist ideology is not illegal in and of itself— no matter how offensive their views might be to the majority of society."

A 2001 U.S. Department of Energy report on extreme leftist groups declared that "RNA members participated in a number of criminal activities including murder, assaults, and robberies.

"The nationalist movement of the 1970s, which initially had the same agenda, resulted in extremists within the movement forming several terrorist groups including the Black Liberation Army and the Republic of New Africa," the report said. You can read the report here:

Over time, the group faded from the news headlines, though it still maintains a presence on social media today. It has had no major encounters with law enforcement since 2001, when authorities found one of the fugitive RNA members who had fled to Cuba living in Mount Vernon, N.Y. He was arrested and convicted.

While the group's profile has diminished in the 21st century, Thompson's allegiance to some of its members remained strong for decades.

In 2013, former RNA vice president Chokwe Lumumba was elected mayor of Jackson, Miss., during a campaign in which Thompson aired a campaign ad supporting Lumumba's candidacy. The congressman later officiated at Lumumba's installation ceremony as mayor.

Lumumba died suddenly at age 66 just months after taking office. Among the many luminaries who lamented his passing was Thompson.

"I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend, Mayor Chokwe Lumumba,” Thompson said in 2014. "I have known Mayor Lumumba since 1974. One of the reasons I was so public about my support for the Mayor was that I believed once people got to know the real Chokwe Lumumba, they would find him to be an extremely bright, caring, and humble individual. His election as Mayor and very short term in office demonstrated exactly that."

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