Civil Rights ‘Drum Major’ Fights for Reform
By Angela Johnson
(HOLLYWOOD, Calif.) Benjamin Crump saw his uncle beaten by police when he was a boy about six or seven years old. They pulled him over for speeding, allegedly. At that tender age, young Ben could figure out his uncle was a target because he was college-educated and drove a nice car.
“They were making an example that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you go, you will always be a second-class citizen,” Crump told The Washington Post.
There is no doubt that Crump was traumatized by what he witnessed. It was a harbinger of the many police brutality cases Crump would accept throughout his legal career.
He stepped into the national spotlight in 2012 as the outspoken proxy for slain teenager Trayvon Martin and legal counsel to his grieving parents. That was eight years ago when Crump stood beside Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin to demand justice after their 17-year-old son. Trayvon was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Crump won a civil judgment in the case, but Zimmerman was acquitted.
The Omega Psi Phi fraternity life-member was incensed by the verdict
“It’s infuriating. It sends a message … that when this person is not convicted and imprisoned that it’s O.K.,” Crump told the Washington Post. “It does not stop people from doing it again. It’s open season, always-justified legalized genocide of black Americans.”
Since 2012, year after year, Crump has raised his voice on behalf of the voiceless, on behalf of the brutalized and murdered by law enforcement officers.
Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014. Witnesses said Brown was holding his hands up in surrender when he was shot. The video of the killing went viral and galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement. Protests erupted in Ferguson and all over the country demanding justice.
Even though the ex-police officer was cleared of wrongdoing, Crump was not deterred. The recipient of the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Award (who Crump idolizes) kept pressing until the U.S. Justice Department initiated an investigation. The result was a consent agreement requiring Ferguson to make significant changes addressing racial bias in its police department and municipal courts.
For the initiated, the list of names reads like the roll call of fallen soldiers: Tamir Rice was shot by police while playing with a toy gun in 2014; Sandra Bland who was arrested during a traffic stop in Waller County, TX, was found hanged in a jail cell in 2015; Terence Crutcher was killed by a Tulsa, OK, police officer in 2016; Trayford Pellerin was shot 10 times by Lafayette, LA, police outside a Shell gas station (2020); George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds (2020); Breonna Taylor was killed by Louisville Metro Police officers who opened fire on her while she slept in her bed (2020); and Jacob Blake was shot in the back seven times in front of his three children by a Kenosha, WI, police officer (2020).
The aforementioned all unarmed African-American men and women for whom Crump has passionately pursued justice. Each case demonstrates how the justice system treats Black people versus whites.
“It’s never easy trying to say when a person of color is killed by a white person that you can just expect the justice system to run its course,” Crump told Insider.com. “Now you have to give it a tug … or the moral arc of the universe won’t bend [toward] justice unless we bend it.”
Crump is regarded as new blood in the centuries-old fight for social justice and civil rights in the United States. Rev. Al Sharpton has called him “the next Johnny Cochran” and “Black America’s attorney general.”
“I have attempted to build a legal justice center … predicated on helping people who historically have been denied justice,” Crump once told the Florida State University (FSU) Law Review, which is his alma mater.
Crump is heir to the legacy of his personal hero, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. The legal victory of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 opened the door of opportunity for Crump. He attended fourth grade at an integrated school in Lumberton, NC, where he was born in 1969. Forty years after the Brown win, Crump graduated from FSU College of Law.
“I try to think what would Justice Marshall be doing if he was doing work now,” Crump said in an Insider.com interview. “Justice Marshall always looked for the cases that did not just impact an individual, but will have a larger impact on society itself.”