Bolton, Miss. — It's 6:15 a.m. and Bennie Thompson is just leaving his brick ranch house in this rural Mississippi town of some 1,000. If there were a traffic light here, it might as well be turned off at this hour; but there is only one main intersection, with a stop sign on each corner.
Mr. Thompson's house is on a paved residential street, beyond a neatly maintained apartment complex, some of whose occupants once lived in shacks.
Who is Bennie Thompson? And why was he one of the handful of black and white political leaders asked to help map out Walter Mondale's presidential campaign in Mississippi?
For one thing, Thompson is an example of the growing diversity of black leaders in the Deep South.
Inspired as a youth by the words of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he did not join the massive exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities. He stayed here to ''struggle it out'' and seek a better life for blacks.
After earning a master's degree in education, he became a teacher. It was just the beginning of a career that recently took him into the midst of the 1984 presidential political campaign here.
Thompson, who supported the Rev. Jesse Jackson's quest for the Democratic presidential nomination, recently met with Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro in the white-columned governor's mansion in Jackson, Miss. In that closed-door meeting, moments before a Mondale-Ferraro campaign rally, Thompson and some other key black and white Democratic leaders in the state discussed how the Mondale campaign should be run in Mississippi.
The decision, according to Thompson's account the next day, was similar to what emerged from the meeting in Minnesota last week between Mr. Jackson and Mr. Mondale: that blacks and whites must work closely if the Democratic ticket is to have any chance at all in November.
For the fact facing the Mondale campaign is that many Mississippi blacks who backed Jesse Jackson from the primaries through the San Francisco convention are not going to become enthusiastic Mondale supporters automatically. Some reaching out by Mondale is necessary, they have made clear.
Mondale's decision to include more blacks in his campaign staff is a step in the direction Southern blacks have been suggesting since his nomination.
Thompson explains that his position has been one of ''seeking concessions to the Jackson forces.'' He would not have been at the closed-door Mondale strategy meeting if he had not recently scored a political coup: He ousted Aaron Henry, longtime president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Mississippi - and a Mondale supporter - as the state's Democratic national committeeman.
That might not mean much outside Mississippi, but in this state the overwhelming vote by state Democratic Party activists for Thompson signaled the end of one era and the beginning of another - one reflecting the diversity among black leadership in the South today.
That diversity emerged publicly at the Democratic National Convention in San Francisco when two of the nation's most prominent blacks - Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and Coretta Scott King, wife of the late Dr. King - were both booed by blacks when they spoke out for Mondale instead of for Jackson.
''Now you have competition in the black community for leadership,'' Thompson explains. ''And that's good. Because it (the black community) is not, contrary to many beliefs, a homogeneous community.''
If Mondale expects to win anywhere in the South, something he almost has to do to have a chance to become president, his understanding of this diversity in black leadership could make the difference in gaining the black support he needs.
But this morning, Thompson is off to another day of helping run Hinds County, which includes the city of Jackson. He is one of five elected county supervisors. How he got to that post tells a lot about today's black Southern leadership.
He recalls growing up in Bolton in a neighborhood with unpaved streets, where most blacks used to live. Water lines to the black community were so small that someone flushing a toilet risked scalding a neighbor showering next door.
Bolton is about two-thirds black. Thompson says that when he spoke out for improved conditions for the blacks, he was threatened by some whites. For a while he had his house guarded.
''I told folks I was born here. I'm not going to sit back and watch people I was raised with never have the opportunity to do anything,'' he recalls.
In 1969, he and another man became the first blacks elected to the Bolton board of aldermen. Four years later, he was elected mayor.
''When I became mayor, 65 percent of the housing was substandard. It lacked plumbing or electricity or would not pass inspection,'' he says. ''We set out on a course of trying to correct that.''
Federal funds became the ''lifeblood'' of Bolton when he was mayor, Thompson recalls. The city has practically no tax base of its own. Some $7 million in federal funds went for improved housing, water and sewer facilities, child care, and fire protection. Roads in the black sections of town were paved, including ''the alley,'' which was renamed after Martin Luther King.
Major Edwards, an elderly black resident of Bolton, takes visitors to the back yard where there is an open patch of dirt. There, he explains, stood the shack that was once his home. He says his new home is ''a lot better.''
''Bennie done some good work,'' the old man says. ''This here fellow is the first fellow who changed things.''
The changes Thompson is seeking today are at the county level. He wants the county to require a percentage of subcontracts to be awarded to minority firms, alleging that too often black firms are not winning contracts even with the best bids because of favoritism among whites. He also seeks closer political cooperation among blacks and whites, suggesting that face to face meetings help break down barriers of mistrust.
''After a while you begin to say, maybe the only reason I thought different from this guy is we never sat down and talked,'' Thompson says.
Aaron Henry, the man he defeated for a Democratic National Committee seat, says of Thompson's win: ''You have to move with the times.'' The two men are still friends, says Thompson.
Black state Sen. Henry J. Kirksey says, ''It was long since past time that Aaron got replaced.'' He says Thompson is ''young, very progressive, and has a lot of charisma.''
But an even younger generation of blacks is already waiting in the wings to take the place of the Thompsons in Mississippi. Charles Griffin, 22, and his brother Frederick, 20, are among them. They say young blacks are not being listened to by black politicians in the state, but ''we're going to push our way in.''