‘BENJAMIN CRUMP. JUSTICE.’
The Tallahassee attorney for the families of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin has one goal: proving that black lives matter
Published in 2015 Florida Super Lawyers magazine
on June 15, 2015
Updated on June 16, 2015
Integration came late to Lumberton, North Carolina. It wasn’t until fifth grade that Benjamin Crump rode the bus to the other side of town to attend what had been the all-white school. One day shortly after he started there, a classmate—a white girl—pulled out a $100 bill to pay for her lunch. “We were just in shock,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘My mother would have to work two weeks to get $100.’”
Most of the African-American kids ate government-subsidized—and largely lackluster—lunches. To prove it was her allowance and she could do with it as she pleased, the little girl bought all of them lunch from the “for sale” side—burgers and hot dogs and “the things kids like to eat,” Crump says.
“I decided then: I want to get to where my people on my side of town can have a good chance at life like the other people,” he says. “I knew the reason we got to go to that school was because of Thurgood Marshall. And I said at that point: I want to be like him. I want to be like Thurgood Marshall because I want to help my community.”
His pursuit of that ambition has made him an internationally known crusader, a publicity-savvy advocate and a sought-after champion for the families of fallen black children.
It also has made him a recognizable figure—the dapper man with the trimmed mustache and close-cropped hair appearing next to the grief-stricken parents of Martin Lee Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others, encouraging them to tell their stories on cable and network news. Often, demonstrators wave placards behind them. It’s part of a deliberate strategy of combining press and protests to force attention on cases, to win those families their day in court.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he says. “We’ve got to prove to everybody in the world that our children’s lives matter, too.”
Framed newspaper and magazine articles about those cases fill nearly every eye-level inch of the hall that wraps around the interior of Parks & Crump’s spacious, yet unassuming, Tallahassee headquarters—and around the dark wood spectator seats, witness box and bench of the firm’s full-size courtroom replica where its attorneys and witnesses practice for trial. The “museum,” as Crump’s longtime assistant, Jennifer Morgan, describes the gallery of press clippings, also includes photos of the two firm partners with three Florida governors and two presidents—Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
In 20 years of practice, Crump has been named one of The National Trial Lawyers’ Top 100 Lawyers and one of Ebony magazine’s “Power 100,” which honors influential African-Americans. He’s received the NAACP Thurgood Marshall Award and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference Martin Luther King Servant Leader Award. And his numerous seven-figure wins on behalf of clients have earned him a spot in the Multi-Million Dollar Advocates Forum.
Crump remains humble about it all. He pauses to say grace over a takeout order of Chick-fil-A nuggets and fries, and credits a higher power with his success.
“A certain part of it is just doing the right thing—and when you do the right thing, God just kind of takes over from there,” he says.
“Ben tends to be the type of lawyer that certainly tries to put the person’s best interests first,” says the firm’s co-founder and managing partner, Daryl Parks.
On the wall of Crump’s office, an image of Justice Marshall illustrates a framed article that Crump wrote for the Florida State University paper. And on the table in front of Crump lies Gilbert King’s book Devil in the Grove, about Marshall’s defense of four black men falsely accused of raping a white woman in Lake County.
“I’ve always considered myself somewhat of a civil rights attorney, because I want to believe I was cut from the mold of Thurgood Marshall at my inception,” says Crump, who is a past vice president and, starting in July, president of the National Bar Association.
He spent his early years in subsidized housing in a poor town in tobacco country near Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His single mother worked by day at a Converse shoe factory and by night as a hotel maid. “My mother was smart,” he says. “She instilled in us early on that education was the way out.”
When Crump turned 12, his mother felt he would have better opportunities living with his stepfather in Plantation. He avoided the drug dealers who wanted younger kids to be their lookouts, studied hard and earned a scholarship to FSU. He majored in criminal justice, bore the brunt of his fraternity brothers’ jokes for not drinking (he still doesn’t), and met his future law partner while they were both undergraduates.
Crump was president of the black student union for two terms; Parks was also a two-term student government president at predominantly black Florida A&M University. They met when the two schools worked together on student government activities. Then Crump and Parks got into FSU’s law school.
“We naturally bonded,” Crump says. “We said, ‘We’re probably the poorest people in here. We’ve got to look out for each other.’”
They hung a shingle straight out of law school, focusing primarily on wrongful death, medical malpractice and civil rights cases.
“First thing every kid in the projects says when they make it out and they do good is they’re going to buy their mother a house,” he says. “I was blessed: Within the first 12 months of our practice, we did pretty good and I bought my mother a house.”
National attention came with the case of Martin Lee Anderson a decade later. The 14-year-old African-American died after a beating by guards in a Florida juvenile detention “boot camp,” as a nurse stood by and watched. Crump won a settlement of more than $7 million for the boy’s family ($10 million over the span of a multiyear annuity) and helped close the state-run camps, but the case still haunts him. The guards and nurse went free.
“I look at all of these cases very personally, because I look at my boys and think, ‘But for the grace of God go I,’” he says. “To say because [a] kid isn’t perfect that he deserves the death sentence is just unbelievable to me.”
The next time he felt the full glare of the national media came six years later, after the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer. Again, Crump went before the TV cameras, as lead attorney for Martin’s family, demanding that George Zimmerman stand trial for the shooting. The case sparked nationwide demonstrations and an outpouring of support from celebrities and officials across the country. Jon Stewart of The Daily Show lambasted Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law. The Miami Heat basketball team donned hoodies for a photo posted on Twitter. President Obama made a lengthy, heartfelt statement in which he said, “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago.”
Looking back, Crump says, “When everybody started saying, ‘I am Trayvon,’ I think they got it. This could have been any black or brown child walking that night in that gated community.”
Martin’s family won an undisclosed settlement from entities including the homeowners association in Sanford, where the shooting occurred. But Crump agonizes over the final outcome.
Zimmerman was found not guilty.
“I do think it was unfair that Trayvon’s killer profiled and pursued him, but it was worse that the criminal justice system profiled Trayvon Benjamin Martin,” Crump says. “I think his killer was only the by-product of the system. It’s the system that was the problem—the fact that, in our society, we’re so quick to criminalize and demonize our little black and brown boys.”
Now he represents Michael Brown’s family in Ferguson, Missouri—another unarmed African-American teenager, shot to death by a police officer. When a Missouri grand jury declined to indict Officer Darren Wilson, Crump launched into an attack on the system itself.
“I’m making a very public plea to change this grand jury system that keeps exonerating all these police officers that kill people, especially brown and black boys,” he says. “I think America still has the very best justice system in the world. But we have to afford equal justice to all of its citizens. … We’ve got to make it be a more perfect union.”
He’s also pressing for adoption of a “Michael Brown Law” requiring police across the country to wear body cameras.
“Everybody acts different when they know they’re being watched,” he says. “Everybody wants to try to be the best they can be.”
As his reputation has grown, his cases have become more far-flung. He represents the family of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old shot to death by police while brandishing a toy gun on a Cleveland playground. He also took the case of Robbie Tolan, the son of former Major League Baseball star Bobby Tolan, who was shot by police outside his parents’ home in Bellaire, Texas, after being erroneously suspected of driving a stolen Nissan SUV. Crump says a search was run on the wrong license plate number. A civil trial is set for this fall.
“I think a lot of attorneys won’t take cases if they’re going to be difficult,” says Robbie Tolan’s mother, Marian Tolan. “He takes them because it’s the right thing to do. He really wants to make a difference.”
A common theme runs through Crump’s best-known cases, reflected in the firm’s slogan: “We help David fight Goliath.”
“A large segment of the population says, ‘We’re looking for somebody to fight for us,’” Crump says.
The impact of his cases has been felt beyond America’s borders. Michael Brown’s parents were invited to meet with the U.N. Committee Against Torture in Geneva.
Later, Crump says, he got a call from a friend living in Paris who had overheard some Parisians as they watched CNN saying, when they saw Crump’s face, “Benjamin Crump. Justice.”
His friend told him, “Don’t ever take lightly what you’re doing or the impact you’re having,” Crump says, “not just in America, but all around the world.”
But some of the cases of which he’s proudest barely got noticed.
In one, an insurance adjuster argued that the life of a black woman killed in a car wreck couldn’t be worth $1 million. She was on welfare, so there was no way she could make that much in her lifetime, “even if she lived to be 100 years old,” Crump recalls the man saying.
“I said, ‘You’re probably right. Nobody else in the world might think her life was worth $1 million but that little girl she left behind—her daughter. And you’d better hope and pray that the jury doesn’t have children that might feel, if [the juror] were wrongfully killed in a car accident, that the insurance company would have to pay $1 million, because to her daughter she was worth more money than you could ever put on a board.”
He got the $1 million.
Another case involved eight unsuspecting African-American women who built homes on former wetlands they bought from the St. Joe Paper Co. in Florida’s panhandle. Some years later, their homes began to sink and break apart. The company fought the women’s claims for years; then Crump came on as co-counsel.
Robert Cox—who hired Crump as a summer intern during law school, later worked at Crump’s firm and now works of counsel with him—chuckles as he describes what happened next.
“Ben showed up in Jacksonville—that’s where the corporate offices were—for a shareholder meeting—and called the press on them,” Cox says, “and within about three months, they agreed to buy back all the houses and do the right thing.”
The press continues to be part of Crump’s arsenal. So do protests. He considers them justified, even necessary, and rejects criticism about them, even if they turn destructive as they did in Ferguson.
“It’s very convenient to say, ‘We’ve got to follow the law and we’ve got to be orderly and let everything take its due course’ when it isn’t happening to your children,” he says. “I say, ‘Don’t kill our children and then get mad at us for declaring it for what it is.’”