Written by Derry London
Tallahassee, FL (by Jennifer Portman/The Tallahassee Democrat) — In early March, Benjamin Crump was in court in Jacksonville, Fla., when his cellphone started lighting up like a $5 Christmas tree.
The Tallahassee, Fla., defense attorney, who, at 42, has forged a successful career representing the disenfranchised in civil rights, personal injury and wrongful death cases, planned to call back Miami attorney Patricia Jones when he had a break.
“Apparently, I didn’t call back soon enough,” he said with a chuckle last week in an interview with the Tallahassee Democrat.
Jones kept calling. When Crump finally picked up, he heard for the first time about Trayvon Martin. Jones, a cousin of Trayvon’s father, handed the phone to Tracy Martin.
The father explained the facts of the case, and how the Sanford, Fla., police did not intend to arrest neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who said he shot the 17-year-old in self defense. The teenager was packing a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea.
“I told him they are going to arrest him. You don’t need me,” Crump recounted. “A couple of days go by, and Mr. Martin is right. They aren’t going to arrest him.”
Crump was on the case. He never let up. It took 44 days, but because of the fire ignited by Crump and Trayvon’s parents, and fueled by media outlets and social networks, Zimmerman was arrested April 11 and charged with second-degree murder and is facing prosecution in Florida by State Attorney Angela Corey.
“It was simple justice,” Crump said. “I just can’t believe it took so long.”
Back home in Tallahassee for a few days after the grueling weeks-long offensive, a weary Crump took some time to sit down in the quiet office of his partner, Daryl Parks, at the law firm the two started together fresh out of Florida State University’s law school in 1996. For years now, the firm has been an incubator for young, minority attorneys interested in civil-rights and public-interest law as well as a common gathering spot for community and philanthropic events. The lights often burn late into the night.
‘More of what he always does’
While the Trayvon Martin case has brought Crump widespread notoriety, he got his first taste of national media attention for his work representing the family of Martin Lee Anderson, the 14-year-old who died in 2006 after being struck by guards at a Bay County, Fla., juvenile boot camp.
He helped garner for the family more than $7 million in civil judgments from the state and county, only to see the prison guards who beat Martin acquitted in their criminal trial after an all-white jury deliberated for 90 minutes. Years later, the U.S. Justice Department decided not to pursue hate-crime charges. The outcome of the criminal case was a brutal defeat for Crump, who hoped for convictions to help bring closure and justice to the boy’s parents.
After the verdict, which stunned many in the state, Crump famously said: “You kill a dog and go to jail; you kill a little black boy and nothing happens.”
Through the case, however, he was able to forge close relationships with the Rev. Al Sharpton and other civil-rights leaders, whom he was able to call on for help when he took on Trayvon’s case. In widely televised remarks the night Zimmerman was arrested, Sharpton gave the credit to Crump and Parks. Crump thanked the multitude of ordinary people who rallied to Trayvon’s cause and called for calm to let the legal system work.
“This isn’t a racial issue,” he said. “It’s a justice issue.”
Those who have known Crump for decades are quick to point out he’s not all about the big cases. There have been plenty of others, while not as high profile, that show his commitment to helping those for whom justice is frequently denied.
“To me, and most of the people who know Ben, this is just more of what he always does,” said Tallahassee attorney Robert Scott Cox, who mentored Crump at FSU and now is a close colleague and friend. “It’s not about the money. It’s about doing the right thing. Ben is one of the few people who truly makes you proud to be a lawyer.”
While after just five years of legal practice he amassed more than 20 jury verdicts or settlements of $1 million or more, the civil-rights cases he readily takes on frequently are not lucrative.
“There is no money for civil rights, but he has yet to shirk and step away. It is that spirit that is there,” said Dale Landry, president of the Tallahassee chapter of the NAACP, who met Crump at the first Martin Lee Anderson news conference and has been tight with him ever since.
“The young brother is a champion, he is the people’s champion,” Landry said. “He is fighting on numerous fronts.”
Crump can pinpoint the moment his path to the law was set. He was in the fifth grade and by the late 1970s integration finally arrived in his hometown of rural Lumberton, N.C. His class at South Lumberton Elementary School was the first to be bused to the town’s white school. All the black children, like him, were on the federal free-lunch program. In the cafeteria one day, a white girl in his new class pulled out a $100 bill and offered to buy Crump and the other black children hamburgers and fries, whatever they wanted.
The boy was stunned.
“I kept thinking to myself how much my mother would have to work to have $100,” Crump recalled.
His single mom worked two jobs — at a factory by day and, at night, cleaning hotel rooms. That little girl with the $100 made something click in Benjamin Crump.
“Why do certain people in a community have it so easy and people in another community have it so hard?” Crump said he wondered. “I want to do like Thurgood Marshall and make it more equitable in all communities.”
Though many attorneys shy away from publicity and some privately deride his courting of the media, Crump’s ability to draw attention to the plight of his clients has proven to be one of his most effective strategies.
“He realizes that rules favor the establishment, so he is willing to go to the press and play in the court of public opinion because that’s the only way to even the odds,” Cox said. “Oppressive behavior can’t stand the bright light of public scrutiny.”
Even Crump concedes the media exposure in the Trayvon Martin case has blazed like a Klieg light. Crump and Trayvon’s parents were featured on every national broadcast news program, including Fox’s conservative Bill O’Reilly Show, as well as on radio and in every major newspaper.
“When you’ve got Prince Henry putting on a hoodie, it’s really something,” Crump said.
While Crump and Parks, who shares equal prestige with his partner and is current president of the National Bar Association, were well-known among blacks in Florida, “They are in the stratosphere now,” said Tallahassee defense attorney Chuck Hobbs.
“They are going to be a beacon of light for people who have injustice placed in their path,” Hobbs said.