[Editor’s note: This story is republished from the Florida Phoenix, which, like NC Policy Watch, is a part of the States Newsroom network.]
“Black America’s attorney general” is a native of Robeson County
Ben Crump was 10 years old in 1978 and living on the “wrong side of the tracks’’ in Lumberton when he discovered how different life was for Black folks from that of their white neighbors who had newly integrated their schools, because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
He was standing in the cafeteria’s free lunch line with other Black children when a Black friend who lived near him in a government housing project approached a white girl named Jenny. She pulled out a one-hundred dollar bill and offered to buy lunch at the more expensive à la carte line that had hamburgers and french fries.
Jenny said the money was her weekly allowance, a sum that was equal to the money Ben’s mother made working two jobs: One in a hotel laundry room, and another at night in a Converse shoe factory.
“I wanted to understand this money and ownership disparity that seemed to be very much tied up with economic justice and race,’’ Crump recalls in a newly published book about the cases he has taken in pursuit of racial, social and economic justice.
The book, “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of People of Color,’’ included details of many of the civil rights cases he has handled.
Crump soon learned that he owed much of his newfound access to education to a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision ordering desegregation of the nation’s public schools.
By the time Crump learned about him, Marshall had become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice himself and blazed a trail of success for young Black lawyers throughout the nation.
Today, Crump is following in Marshall’s path, handling legal battles all over the country on behalf of Black Americans who have been denied justice, most often at the hands of white law enforcement officers.
His cases often focus on civil rights, and many have garnered a lot of media attention.
Tuesday, Crump was representing the family of George Floyd, a Minneapolis man who was killed by a police officer who knelt on Floyd’s throat as he was arresting him on a misdemeanor charge. Witnesses recorded the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took to kill him.
The officer who knelt on him has been charged with second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; other officers who did nothing to intervene have been charged with manslaughter.
The death, more than many that came before it, has sparked protests all over the world in Floyd’s name. Thousands of Americans have flooded the streets of Minneapolis, Washington, D.C., New York and other American cities during the past few weeks.
Protesters have also staged marches in London and several European cities and as far away as Australia.
Crump was in Houston, Texas, on Tuesday attending Floyd’s funeral and preparing for a trip to Washington, D.C.. to testify before a U.S. House committee looking at similar cases nationwide.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, at Floyd’s funeral, described Crump as “Black America’s attorney general probably because we don’t feel like we have one.”
The next day Crump will be in Louisville, Ky., to appear before city commissioners with the family of Breonna Taylor, another victim of police violence. Taylor, an emergency medical technician was shot eight times as three plain clothes officers served a no-knock warrant at her home on March 13.
Speaking from a car after the funeral as he joined the procession to the graveyard where Floyd was being laid to rest beside his mother, Crump said he believes the Minneapolis death has exploded in the news because the death was so completely documented.
In a sense, Floyd narrated the video of his own death, calling for help, talking to his dead mother and saying “I’m gone now, I’m through, I can’t breathe.’’
“Anyone with any humanity has to be disturbed by that,’’ Crump said. “This is beyond even death quite literally seen by the people on the street,’’ Crump added. He has the video taken by a 17-year-old high school student, a young woman who has since received death threats. She attended Tuesday’s funeral in Houston.
Her video and the body camera videos worn by police have become evidence in the criminal case and will be key material in any civil lawsuits that are filed.
Floyd’s death has already sparked some reforms. Several police departments have prohibited officers from using a choke hold when making arrests. There have also been calls to divert money from police departments to other areas where people need help.
In addition, Crump noted that a GoFundMe Page raising money for Floyd’s family has raised $45 million.
Crump said he is glad to see private fundraising to help families because lawsuits are often dismissed or fail to raise the money.
Another GoFundMe page has started for Breonna Taylor. Her case has received far less publicity and raised $8 million.
Crump also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, a teenager killed in a widely publicized Seminole County, Fla., case by a private security guard, and Michael Brown Jr., an 18-year old killed by police in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.
Crump took the case of Martin Lee Anderson, a black 14-year-old-boy who died in a Panama City juvenile boot camp after he was forced to continue running track and held down by guards who forced him to inhale ammonia that caused the blockage of his airway. His death was captured on a videotape that law enforcement officials initially tried to withhold from Crump and the family.
State and local officials settled the case for $10-million and closed all the boot camps for juveniles.
The oldest of nine children, Benjamin Crump, 50, was born in Lumberton and grew up in South Florida.
He moved to Tallahassee while attending Florida State University and its law school. Crump now heads a major law firm that specializes in civil rights cases. He and his wife, Genae, have a daughter, Brooklyn. Genae Crump has a doctorate degree in education and works for the Leon County school system.