Described as “today’s seminal civil rights lawyer” by Morgan & Morgan founder John Morgan, Ben Crump has represented some of the most high profile civil rights and discrimination cases of the 21st century, including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Martin Lee Anderson, and the currently unfolding Chris Jones case. Crump
Crump is fluent in Floridian. After graduating high school in Fort Lauderdale, he attended undergraduate and law school at Florida State University, and he feels his love for the state divided between those two places. “I think Tallahassee’s an incredible place to raise my family. Great educational institutions, as well as there’s not too much traffic. And there’s all four seasons, but we get three.”
When asked about what drove his career choice, Crump reminisces about a childhood desire to emulate the historic lawyer and Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall. After being told by his mother and school teachers that the reason why he had the opportunity to go to a new school with new books and technologies was because of the work of Marshall, Crump “made the decision right then that I wanted to be like Thurgood Marshall so that I could make it better for my community and people who look like to have a chance at the American dream […] That’s what motivates me, that’s what drives me and I clearly know that my focus is every day I wake up in the morning.”
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the Sunshine State’s brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and its millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host, Chris Cate, and in this episode, created by Salter Mitchell PR, I talk to Ben Crump, one of our nation’s leading civil rights attorneys, who has represented the families of Martin Lee Anderson, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown of Ferguson, Missouri, and many others. In our conversation, we talk about the highly [00:00:30] publicized cases of Anderson, Martin, and Brown, about civil rights in America, and about Crump’s hero, Thurgood Marshall. You can hear it all right now.
Ben, thanks so much for being on this show. I know you’re used to telling the stories of the people you represent, but I want to start by asking you about your own story. Can you tell me a little bit about your life growing up and how that led you into a career of law?
Ben Crump: Certainly. Thank you for having me, Chris. I think it’s important to be able to talk not only [00:01:00] about what you do but also people know why you do the things you do, and, so your first question really reflects on why I do the things I do. I grew up in rural North Carolina, a little small country town – Lumberton, North Carolina – to a single mother who raised three boys on her own, worked two jobs and I remember, in the fourth grade the schools [00:01:30] were finally integrated on the elementary level in Lumberton and they’d bust all the little black children from the south side of Lumberton, North CA, across the tracks to the white section of town where they’d built a new school for the fourth, fifth and sixth graders, and it was there that, you know, you just got to see so many things about how they had it [00:02:00] on the other side of town. The new school, the new books, the new facilities and technologies they had and it was just riveting.
I remember distinctly one specific incident involving us all in the school cafeteria where all the little black children we were all on the free lunch program because it was based on your parents’ income level and all of the little white children [00:02:30] had what we call “A la carte” or paid lunch where in the free lunch you had whatever the superintendent of the school board decided was good for the students, the nutritional value for the students.
You had to get things that didn’t look as good as the A la carte when you’re a little nine year old kid you’re looking at the cheeseburgers, the french fries, the milkshakes, [00:03:00] everything that little children want and so we would have to wait in a long line and there was this little white girl who was hanging out with another little black girl and that’s amazing how that happens, you know, this was the first time you had little black children going to school with little white children and we were all becoming friends.
Everybody was playing together, talking together, getting to know each other and this was the situation where the little white girl [00:03:30] who came to the line with all us little black children. We’re standing, waiting hungry to get through the line and she was saying they were gonna eat A la carte and she said she was “gonna treat the little black girl” and she threw down a $100 bill and it kinda blew us away because my mother would’ve had to work all week to get a $100 bill and here was this little 19 year old white girl saying [00:04:00] this was “her $100” and that she got $100 for her allowance. We didn’t believe her and to prove to us that it really was her $100 she told us that she would treat all four of us and she did. We all got cheeseburgers and fries and it was just mind boggling to me.
I remember riding the school bus back across the tracks to the south [00:04:30] side of town thinking the whole time “Man, why do people in certain parts of town have it so good while in my part of town it’s so challenging?” and I remember my mother and the school teachers all saying the children the reason we all gotta go to the new school with the new books and the new technologies was because of Thurgood Marshall and Brown versus the Board of Education and I made my decision right then that [00:05:00] I wanted to be like Thurgood Marshall so that I could make it better for my community and people who look like me to have a chance at the American dream and from that day to this one, Chris, that’s what motivates me, that’s what drives me and I clearly know what my focus is everyday I wake up in the morning.
Chris Cate: Is there a case early on in your career where something clicked for you and you realized the impact a case can not only have on your client, but on a community [00:05:30] and even a nation?
Ben Crump: Certainly. That would be Martin Lee Anderson, the bootcamp case in 2006. I tell people it was “Trayvon before Trayvon” because that was the tragic situation where 14 year old Martin Lee Anderson on the first day at the Bay County Boot Camp in Panama City, FL, that was ran by the Bay County Sheriffs Department. [00:06:00] He was there doing the physical endurance trails where they got the children running around in I guess hot temperatures for whatever reasons, and he couldn’t go anymore. He fell down, passed out. They said he was faking when he fell down and they went over and threatened him, yelled at him, pantsed [00:06:30] him and so forth saying “you’d better keep running” and he got back up and he ran for another 100 yards and then he fell again and then the guards ran over again at him, threatened him again, picked him up and pushed him again.
He ran 10 more yards and fell again and then they did the same thing. Repeated it. And this is all on video now, this is all captured on surveillance – video. And [00:07:00] it’s very difficult to watch when you look at adults, these grown men doing this to a 14 year old kid. They picked him up, he’d fall down, pick him up fall down. It was almost like he was a ragdoll at one point and they all hang around him and they were punching him and kicking him and they stuffed ammonia tablets into his nose while the nurse who was supposed to be there for the wellbeing of the children [00:07:30] stands there with her hands on her hips. It’s all on video and tragically 14 year old Martin Lee Anderson dies right there on that video camera.
The officers were charged by the special prosecutor who the governor appointed Mark Ober out of Tampa and you had all kinds of marches and demonstrations and protests all around the state [00:08:00] and some outside of state but mostly it was a Florida matter. And the jury was out for about one hour, came back and said despite everything on that videotape, they had none of the police officers guilty and that case more than anything showed me the impact that your cases can have on a community or on society because that video back in 2006 [00:08:30] was one of the top 10 videos watched on YouTube. And so you had over two, three million people who’d watched that video and I said “wow”. That’s a profound impact when that many people go to watch a video.
Chris Cate: Yeah, it’s almost as if, while you didn’t win in the courtroom but you won in the court of public opinion. Was that kind of the sense, you know, as you transition and were later on [00:09:00] working on the Trayvon Martin case kind of had that in the back of your head that the court of public opinion is almost as important as what’s going in the courtroom itself?
Ben Crump: Absolutely. And it’s interesting because we are the civil lawyers and it’s important that people understand that the criminal lawyers, and the district attorneys, and the state attorneys, the prosecutors; they’re the ones who win and lose criminal trials. All we can do is the civil case and so we were [00:09:30] very successful in that case.
I think lawyers can call, Chris, to what you were alluding to, public opinion, they call the public opinion because people said “This is just wrong, you can’t kill a child and have someone murdered on TV and nobody be held accountable.” The state of Florida play out our false claims be at $5 million – the largest amount they’ve ever paid for an individual wrongful deaths and then they counter paid another $ [00:10:00] 3 million and then you had some [inaudible 00:10:02] insurance policies that paid out so even though we were very successful in the Civil arena, nobody was held accountable, no police officer went to jail and as I would learn in the future, they would pay money out in the civil settlements but nobody goes to jail for killing these little black and brown people and so to me there’s no deterrent [00:10:30] value. If nothing happens to the individual, then the next person who has a gun and a badge and some kind of cloak of authority feels like “If I kill this black or brown person, nothing’s gonna happen to me, so there’s no consequences for my actions.”
And that’s what we’re fighting and I think the whole Black Lives Matter campaign is about. Due process of the law, fair administration of justice. If this was your child, what would you want to see happen? But that’s exactly [00:11:00] what we want to see when you kill all children too. Nothing more, nothing less. We just want equal justice.
Chris Cate: There’s probably a lot of cases that don’t make it to the national news but that are happening every day. So how do you go about choosing which clients to represent, cause you, you know, once you commit to a case you could be in for over a year, and time and energy.
Ben Crump: You know, it’s one of those things that I often reflect on, Chris and I think, for me, it [00:11:30] has to move me. It almost has to shock my conscience when I say “this is outrageous”. I know we may lose a lot of resources, money, time the whole nine. But it’s the right thing to do. And I often think what I say in speeches a lot, to civil rights groups and colleges and universities, that King said “The Coward [00:12:00] asked the question is it safe? And Expediency comes along and asks the question is it politically correct?. And then Vanity comes along and asks the question is it popular?” And then he said “Old Conscience comes along and asks is it right?” And there comes a time where one must take a position that’s neither popular, nor politically correct, nor safe. One must take the position because his conscience tells him it’s the right thing to do. And so many times when I take these cases [00:12:30] that seem to be insurmountable odds, but you just know your heart of hearts it’s the right thing to do. Once you do that then you just have to have the courage to step out and try to do the right thing and I believe God takes over from there.
Chris Cate: To mention of the Trayvon Martin case, is there a moment or thought that comes to mind first when you think back on that case?
Ben Crump: [00:13:00] There are three thoughts that really come to mind when I think about Trayvon. The first thing I think about is the first conversation I had with his father, Tracy Martin and I was on the call where he’s telling me how his son was walking home from the 7/11, minding his own business and the neighborhood watch volunteer with a 9 millimeter gun pulled fire, pursued and shot him in the heart. And [00:13:30] there’s a longer story there but for the sake of time I cut to the chase.
Tracy was on the floor and I was telling him he didn’t need me on the case because I was under the impression as an officer of the court “Of course they’re gonna arrest him”. Their teenager who all he had was a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea and you got the self confessed killer with the proverbial smoking gun [00:14:00] still in his hand. And I’m thinking “You gotta arrest him” because from what I see in our community, they’d arrest you with no evidence at all on a hunch, on an innuendo. Somebody says you fit the description and now you’ve got all this evidence and they don’t arrest the guy, they let him go home and sleep in his own bed based on his version of events. It just blew my mind but [00:14:30] I remember from that conversation what Mr. Martin said when he said the police said they’re not gonna arrest him because of the Stand-Your-Ground Law.
And even I had [inaudible 00:14:45] it became very plain to me at that point, Chris, that it was already bad enough that people of color, especially parents saying “We have to deal with the police killing [00:15:00] us and nobody being held accountable.”. But now with the Stand-Your-Ground Law, anybody can kill all the children and never be held accountable and so that’s the first thing I remember about Trayvon Martin that people are never gonna be made aware of this terrible law. And hopefully, if they are made aware of it, knowledge is power, we’ll do something about it.
The second thing I remember was in The Million Hoodie March, Trayvon’s [00:15:30] mother was very emotional and [inaudible 00:15:35] she wanted to thank everybody for standing up for her son, Trayvon Martin. But he’s not just her son, he’s their son too. He’s all our son’s. Because if this could happen to my child, it could happen to your child. So we gotta stand up for Trayvon, we gotta stand up for justice. And [00:16:00] I thought in just that little line, the encapsulated the whole thing with the Trayvon Martin journey to justice was about. This really could’ve been any of our children walking home at night from the 7/11 because our society allows it and condones that you can take black life and not be held accountable for it.
And then the last thing I remember from Trayvon’s case [00:16:30] is that it’s bad what happened to Trayvon Martin. And I say remember the biggest takeaways in my mind, is that it’s bad what happened how his killed shot and killed him in that gated community on the streets. But it was worse how they killed Trayvon Martin in the courtroom when they allow so many things to happen where it was an assassination of his [00:17:00] character after they had assassinated his body and the fact that everybody was complicit.
It seemed like, for instance, the judge made the determination to let a white lady who had nothing to do with the case at all who had offered nothing I believe on many legal commentators around the country to understand why she’d been allowed to testify but she testified that she [00:17:30] lived in that residence and about eight months prior to February 12th – I’m sorry – February 26th 2012 when Trayvon was shot and killed. Eight months prior, her apartment had been burglarized by a young African American man. And I guess the defense was often because Trayvon [00:18:00] was a young black man that the jury can consider that his killer had every right to stop any black man walking in that gated community and detain him and accuse him or make him prove that he was rightfully in that gated community.
And I kept thinking to myself, you know, what if this happened to any other race of people. A white person commits a crime, nobody [00:18:30] would say it’s okay to stop any and every white man in that gated community, but the judge I believe by allowing this lady to testify was saying to the jury that it’s okay that you consider what the defense is offering that because Trayvon was a young black man, and because sometime prior in the history a young black man had committed a crime in this gated community that it was okay to treat all black men like criminals. And [00:19:00] I just thought that was so shocking to me as an officer of the court; if the facts were reversed that would never happen. That if Trayvon was accused of killing his killer and we said okay defending Trayvon, we want to say because we can find a time in history where a white, Hispanic person had killed or did some crime, something nefarious [00:19:30] we just want to offer this witness up to the jury to try to see if we could persuade them to justify the killing. It just never happens and those are the biggest things I remember about Trayvon. Not only how they killed him on the streets but how they killed him in the courtroom.
Chris Cate: In the Trayvon case, and then even in the case with Michael Brown and Ferguson, what lessons have you learned about how the media can work for or against you [00:20:00] in a case?
Ben Crump: Certainly. You know, I think it’s very significant, and I certainly don’t think to take it lightly. Trayvon Martin was a phenomenon. Never in the history of America had we saw this much attention given about the death of a black person. This young black child killing [00:20:30] was the number one news story in the world in 2012, which, you know, was just huge. There’s no other way to say it. And so I think the media certainly helps tremendously, and I think that we are in the battle for the conscience of America, so I do believe, Chris, that the media plays an important role in not letting [00:21:00] them sweep the deaths under the rug.
I also think the media is just like all of us. We’re not just only the problem we also are the solution if we choose to be. The fact that, you know, you allow so many negative images about black men in particular to dominate the narrative, and it almost sends those subliminal messages [00:21:30] that black people are criminals.
You know, Chris, you have to think about it like this. When you think about our criminal justice system, and you think about black people, especially black men, black people only make up only about 13-14% of the population in America. That’s it. So, at best, black men and they say there’s more women than men but black men can only make up 7% of the population in America [00:22:00] but we make up almost half of the people who are incarcerated in prisons. We make up almost half the people of who police officers shoot. And so, when you look at those statistics, you gotta conclude one of two things.
Either black people and black men in particular are just some bad, nefarious, evil, criminal thugs. Argue that this [00:22:30] concludes that the system is broken. I just don’t believe that black people are any worse than white people. There’s some good in the worst of us and some bad in the best of us and so, when you think about Trayvon, and Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice, the 12 year old in Cleveland, OH, who I got the honor of representing as well as Terence Crutcher in Tulsa, OK that’s the one “hands [00:23:00] up, don’t shoot” on video when the white policewoman shot him in broad daylight with the helicopter flying over above and two officers with her and she still claims she felt in fear of her life. And like the rest of these cases she was found not guilty because, you know, none of these police officers are ever found guilty.
The media plays an important role in allowing those videos, those images, the [00:23:30] hypocrisy of it all to be seen by every American. And whether you do something about it or not, at least you can’t say you didn’t know what happened because you saw it with your own eyes.
Chris Cate: And Ferguson, I think in particular a lot of the media attention was due to the anger in the community that led to protest and even riots. When you’re in a community that feels so wronged, what advice do you give [00:24:00] them about how to express their outrage productively when, you know, sometimes if they do something that gives them a lot of attention that’s how they get the attention from the media.
Ben Crump: Yeah, Martin Luther King said “protest is the method of the communication of the voiceless when nobody listens to them” and I think that was never more evidenced than in Ferguson, [00:24:30] especially when you see the Department of Justice report about all the pattern, and the practice of discrimination against the majority black population that made up Ferguson. But I also think that, my advice to them is always we gotta fight to make sure we get equal justice, [00:25:00] due process and we can’t be violent to try to demonstrate that violence is wrong.
And I know it’s bad, I know it makes you want to holler. I get it because I have black boys too and I pray everyday they leave the house that they won’t be killed by the people who are supposed to protect and serve them because it’s not surprising to any minority in America that you might get a knock on the door saying the police shot your child. That’s the reality we have to live with. A lot [00:25:30] of my white friends can’t even fathom that. It’s an abstract thought to them that the police would kill your child.
But with all that said, Chris, we have to remind them of what Dr. King said that “the moral arc is long, but it bends towards justice” and you’ve just gotta keep trying to press forward as constructively as possible to make a difference and I [00:26:00] personally, my little saying is that always that “we must make sure we educate our children to the point where they are more intelligent than our oppressors.”
Chris Cate: And speaking of which, the tension between and police and minority communities; the tension has always been there. That’s not something that’s new but it doesn’t seem like it’s getting better. What would your advice [00:26:30] be or what are your recommendations on what both sides can do to really-
Ben Crump: It’s really simple, Chris. It’s so simple. It’s distrust, is the issue, between communities of color and law enforcement. It basically boils down to distrust.
The solution is very straightforward. Transparency plus accountability equals trust. And [00:27:00] I mean it’s not even complicated. Let’s be very transparent. Let’s let everybody see what happened and if somebody did something wrong, hold them accountable. If they didn’t, the person who was the victim, or whoever something, it was deserved. And either way, you’ve got transparency, and then we can see if there needs to be accountability and give us the accountability and we trust you that this is equal justice, what [00:27:30] you would’ve done if it happened to your child, you did the same for my child and we all can accept that as long as everything is open and clear, and everything is equal and fair I think black people are the most forgiving people in the world.
When you pick up on all this stuff that they’ve been through in America, but yet still love America. They still believe in the system. Trust the system completely, no matter how many times the system [00:28:00] keeps breaking your heart they still want to believe that the american dream is for all of us. And so, I think we can get beyond this but it has to be built on the principles of trust and the only way we get the trust is transparency plus accountability.
Chris Cate: I’ll transition out to the final four questions and I know we’re running short on time so you can take these as kind of a rapid fire.
Ben Crump: Okay! [laughing] Sheila hasn’t given me the look.
Chris Cate: [laughing] she hasn’t given you the look, that’s good! [00:28:30] Who is a Florida leader that you admire? And it can be someone still living or even someone from the past.
Ben Crump: Thurgood, obviously, but I will tell you someone I really admire and that is Leroy Collins. The fact that he took a stand but it was unpopular but he knew it was the right thing to do, and you understand that you’re on the right side of history no matter what it may cost you to damn what [00:29:00] they may say about you. He literally- his position prevented him from becoming a US senator. Governor Collins was the one who said that we’re gonna integrate the schools and he broke the solid south. I’ve always been an admirer of people with courage and conviction and that’s why Thurgood Marshall is my personal hero. And I think Governor Collins was [00:29:30] cut from the cloth as Thurgood Marshall, somebody willing to stand on their convictions no matter what the populace said about the prevailing … you know, societal thoughts on issues like immigration.
Chris Cate: What person, place or thing do you think deserves more attention than Florida than what it’s getting right now?
Ben Crump: That’s easy for me to say, [00:30:00] that I got so many cases in Florida. I think the Corey Jones case hasn’t got the attention that it should get. That was the church drummer who broke down on the side of the road and an undercover police officer, who never identified himself came, and killed him, and then lied about it by the grace of God but if not for the tow truck company who’d been on the phone with him recorded everything [00:30:30] that happened, he would’ve gotten away with it. And so I think the Corey Jones case deserves more attention right here in the state of Florida and I believe they’re trying to stall, and hold off, and let people forget about it because I think they all want to sweep it under the rug. Nobody wants to say “we’re gonna hold people accountable for taking these black lives.” It’s almost like it’s [00:31:00] the path of least resistance. We want to avoid the Ferguson’s, and the Baltimore’s and the Charlottesville’s but if we can avoid that, we’re not really trying to send the white person to jail for killing the black person. And that’s what you see. More times than not.
Chris Cate: Last two questions are a little bit lighter. What’s a favorite place in Florida for you to visit?
Ben Crump: Well, I’m kind of impartial and biased. I went to high school in Fort [00:31:30] Lauderdale so I guess that’s always my first love for the state of Florida, even though I think Tallahassee’s an incredible place to raise my family. Great educational institutions as well as there’s not too much traffic. And we all get four seasons, but we get three.
Chris Cate: And, finally, what’s your favorite Florida sports team?
Ben Crump: [laughing] That’s easy. Florida State Seminoles!. I’m a graduate! Go ‘Noles!
Chris Cate: Alright, [00:32:00] well thank you so much for being here.
Ben Crump: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
Chris Cate: That’s for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast! If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up on your favorite podcast app, like Apple Podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play Music. If you leave a review, that would be great too! Thanks to my team at Salter Mitchell PR for making this podcast possible. If you need help telling your Florida story, we’ve got you covered. We offer issues management, crisis communications, social media, [00:32:30] advocacy, and media relations assistance. We also have our own in house creative and research teams. Look us up at SalterMitchellPR.com for more information. You can also find more information about the Fluent in Floridian podcast at FluentinFloridian.com. Have a great day!