When he gives a speech, Ben Crump often springs an uncomfortable question on his audience.
The man who has been called “Black America’s attorney general” asks listeners if they can name five Black people who have been killed by excessive police force. Audience members rattle off names like George Floyd, Michael Brown and Breonna Taylor.
Crump then asks them to name one White man who has died under similar circumstances.
“Not to worry,” Crump says after a minute of awkward silence. “I’ll wait for you to give me a name.”
Crump says the exercise is designed to drive home a lesson he learned as a civil rights attorney. The United States has a two-tiered justice system where even White mass shooters are routinely taken alive. But “hands up, don’t shoot” doesn’t work for unarmed Black people who “continue to be gunned down, often on sight,” he says.
“Every chance I get, I try to force them to have a conscious thought about that question because a lot of times until you engage them, they don’t really get it,” Crump says by phone from the home office of his law firm in Tallahassee, Florida.
Crump has been forcing Americans to answer tough questions about their nation’s criminal justice system for years now. He’s done this by becoming the go-to attorney for Black families that have lost a loved one to police or vigilante violence. The 51-year-old Crump has been at the center of virtually every racial firestorm in the last eight years.
He is the nation’s most famous civil rights attorney — you’ve probably seen him even if you don’t know his name. Crump was recently seen on television celebrating with the family of George Floyd after a jury returned a guilty verdict against Derek Chauvin, the White police officer charged with Floyd’s murder.
He also represents the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the young Black man who was chased and fatally shot while jogging near his Georgia home last year. And he has represented the family of Breonna Taylor, the Black woman who was shot and killed last year by police in her Louisville home during a botched drug investigation.
Crump has plunged so much into the sorrows of Black families that he sometimes seems more like a grief counselor than a lawyer. With his shaved head, dark-hued suits and an Eagle of Justice pin fixed to his lapel, he bears himself with the soothing solemnity of a church deacon. He speaks in a soft, unhurried Southern drawl that seems more suited for a church pew than a courtroom.
Crump has become such a fixture at press conferences about tragic police violence that one writer said last year, “If you turn on your TV and see Benjamin Crump, it usually means that something terrible has happened.”
What breaks Crump’s heart
When asked how he handles the constant exposure to tragedy, Crump cites the example of a legendary Black attorney who helped him get through some tough days during his boyhood in a small, racially divided North Carolina town near Fort Bragg. That attorney became the first Black member of the US Supreme Court.
“The one thing that motivates me is that Thurgood Marshall is my personal hero, my North Star,” Crump says. “I think about how daunting it was for Marshall and our ancestors, but they never gave up hope.”
Marshall, though, didn’t have a cellphone. He didn’t get exposed to the constant barrage of brutal images that Crump can’t escape. Each week, strangers and clients alike send him cell phone video of Black and brown people getting brutalized by police.
Even when Crump stops at McDonald’s or one of his other beloved fast-food restaurants, strangers often come to his table to share their police horror stories and ask for help.
Robert Cox, Crump’s legal mentor and the man who gave Crump his first job as a law clerk, says the only time Crump seems to get a chance to rest is when someone is driving him somewhere and he nods off.
“They never stop,” says Cox, an attorney at Crump’s firm, of the cell-phone horrors that Crump sees virtually every week. “I know these things wound him each time he sees them. You can tell it’s breaking his heart.”
Press Crump on how he handles the strain, and he takes refuge in two sources. One is his faith. He talks with reverence about growing up in a small-town church. He prays with clients. He even bows his head before eating a burger at McDonald’s.
“To this day, I have never seen him take a drink, utter a curse word and he always says grace before anything,” Cox says.
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Crump also draws strength from the resilience of his ancestors. He is a student of history as well as the law. Any conversation about policing veers off into discussions about history, why the concept of race was invented and how ordinary Black people have long overcome assaults on their body and spirit.
Crump has even composed a “Black Pledge of Allegiance” to bolster his resolve. He recites it in the morning.
In it, Crump describes himself as “a descendant of the Nubian Kings and Queens and those who survived the chains of the Middle Passage,” and “the definition of Ebony, a dense Black, hard, heavy, durable wood that safeguards everything in my neighborhood.”
Crump’s wife Genae, though, wonders at times about who is going to keep her husband safe. Crump has received numerous threatening phone calls and letters.
She’s urged him to get security, to be careful. She says they try not to let fear paralyze them.
“I’m a believer as well,” Genae Crump says. “The Lord has us. If I have to live in fear then you might as well take me to the grave,” she says. “We can’t live our life out of fear.”
Crump says he spends about seven months a year on the road, away from Genae, their 8-year-old daughter Brooklyn and their custom-built house in a historically Black section of Tallahassee.
He says it with a tone of weariness, not pride.
Not long ago, his daughter asked him an unexpected question that pricked his conscience. He had prepared to take off two weeks off at Christmas, but two police shootings forced him to change his holiday plans.
“Daddy, why do you have to leave the day after Christmas?” his daughter asked as he prepared to leave. “It’s the Christmas holiday.”
Why some call him a ‘race hustler’
But while some see dedication in Crump’s constant travel and frequent press conferences, others see deceit.
Some critics have called Crump a “race hustler” and “the new Al Sharpton on steroids,” who exploits tragedy for personal gain.
One of his harshest critics is Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron. Crump clashed with Cameron while representing the family of Taylor, the Black woman who was killed by police last year during a botched raid on her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. When Crump called for a new special prosecutor to investigate, Cameron criticized him as an opportunist.
“He goes into a city, creates a narrative, cherry picks facts to establish, to prove that narrative, creates chaos in a community, misrepresents the facts,” Cameron said in an interview last year on Fox News. “And then he leaves with his money, and then asks the community to pick up the pieces.”
Cameron’s office did not respond to an interview request.
The staggering amount of some of Crump’s settlements has indeed drawn attention. Crump and a team of lawyers won a $12 million settlement for Taylor’s family. Crump also helped win a $27 million settlement from the city of Minneapolis to the estate of George Floyd’s family.
He also settled a wrongful death lawsuit for an undisclosed amount against the homeowner’s association in a Florida community where Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, was killed in 2013 by a neighborhood watch coordinator.
And just this month Crump won a $10 million settlement from the city of Columbus, Ohio, on behalf of the family of Andre Hill, a Black man who was shot to death as he emerged from the garage of a friend’s home by police officers answering a nonemergency call.
His law firm, Ben Crump Law, now has offices in Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Texas, California and the nation’s capital.
Crump responds to accusations that he’s profiting from tragedy by saying the police brutality division of his law firm is its least profitable.
“For every Breonna Taylor, there are a hundred Black people and Brown people who have been killed by the police, unjustifiably, that you don’t make a penny on,” Crump said in a recent interview with CBS.
Some who follow Crump’s work say critics don’t understand his role in high-profile cases. Elected prosecutors try criminal cases involving cops accused of brutality. Instead Crump pursues wrongful death civil suits on behalf of the victims’ families, which — given how rare it is for a jury to convict police officers — is “often the only case that can be won,” said one commentator about Crump’s work.
Crump’s fiery rhetoric, aimed at the entire criminal justice system, alienates some people. In his book, “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People,” he uses the term “genocide” to describe how the country’s legal system treats Black and brown citizens.
He argues in the book that the United Nations’ full definition of genocide also includes attempts to destroy a people by “causing serious bodily or mental harm.”
Crump defended his use of the term during a recent interview with CNN. He asked what term would White people use to describe a scenario where they were treated by the justice system like people of color.
“If it were their children that were being killed unjustifiably by police brutality and mass incarceration, I think they would have no problem acknowledging it as a genocidal situation,” he says.
While some may be suspicious of Crump’s zeal for the spotlight, others see him using the only tool available to many grieving Black families.
Cox, his legal mentor, says Crump is one of the first attorneys to realize that drawing public scrutiny to a shooting could get a Black family some measure of justice. In an earlier era, the Black victims of police violence were ignored.
“He uses the media as a weapon,” Cox says. “When I was growing up, we (lawyers) were never supposed to talk to the press. Judges frowned upon that. No good lawyers advertised except the sleaziest ones. We didn’t have cameras in the courtroom. It was seen as unseemly. But Ben saw it as tool to advance his client’s case.”
He felt the sting of racism at an early age
Benjamin Crump knows what it’s like to be Black and ignored. He grew up the oldest of nine siblings in a public housing project in Lumberton, North Carolina, a factory city of about 21,000 people where the poor Black community and the more affluent White neighborhoods were divided by railroad tracks.
Crump felt the sting of racism early on. The town’s elementary school wasn’t racially integrated, Crump says, until the late 1970s. In various interviews he’s told versions of the same stories: Seeing a White policeman beat an uncle “for the crime of getting into a White college;” watching his mother get fired from her shoe factory job because a supervisor wouldn’t allow her to take the day off to attend a school ceremony honoring her son; and meeting a 10-year-old White girl at a newly integrated elementary school that offered to buy him lunch with a $100 bill — the equivalent of his mother’s weekly income from working two jobs.
“She taught me that life isn’t fair, life is hard,” Crump says of his mother, “and you have to bring something to the table if you want to sit down.”
Crump says one of the biggest thrills of his life came after he made a cameo appearance in the 2017 film “Marshall,’ which portrayed Thurgood Marshall’s early days as a crusading NAAP lawyer. When the film came out, Crump rented a movie theater and invited his family and friends.
“He was just beaming, and his mom was in the front row,” says Cox, Crump’s mentor and colleague. “She was smiling bigger than everybody.”
He was also inspired by his great grandmother Mittie Cordell, or “Ma Mittie.” She was the family matriarch who made sure he made it home by the time the streetlights flickered on, used a switch to instill discipline, and instilled a reverence for church in him. Her favorite gospel song was “Blessed Assurance.”
When Crump was a boy, she enlisted him to read the newspaper out loud to her every day. He didn’t learn until later that she couldn’t read.
What she lacked in literacy, Crump says, she made up with her faith, resourcefulness and a keen intelligence.
“Even though she had an eighth-grade education, she was the wisest person I ever met on the face of earth,” he says. “Everything I am I owe to (my mother) and my grandmother.”
Crump left Lumberton and eventually followed the legal path of Marshall, his hero. He won a scholarship to Florida State University and then a law degree from its college of law. He also got some of his earliest lessons in being an activist outside the classroom. Crump became the president of the Black student union at FSU, led protests over racial injustice and created a mentoring program for poor Black students.
When Black students had a problem that needed addressing, they went to Crump, says Chris O’Neal, who works today with Crump at his law firm.
“He had an innate magnetism, an ability to speak plainly about things that were probably revolutionary at the time,” O’Neal says. “He had a revolutionary attitude about everything.”
Crump dressed like he was headed to a press conference even back in his college days, says Genae, his wife. She met him in college where he seemed at times more interested in being the next John Grisham than being in a courtroom. She says his first love was writing, but practicing law provided more financial stability.
“When we first started dating it unnerved me when we went to the theme park,” she says, laughing. “He may have put on jeans, but he still had on hard-bottom shoes and he wore a (suit) jacket.”
In 1996, Crump started his own law firm in Tallahassee. He eventually decorated his law office carpet with the purple and gold colors of Omega Psi Phi, the historically Black fraternity he joined in college.
But even as his firm grew and his reputation spread, Crump never really left part of Lumberton behind. He cultivates his southeastern Carolina roots as part of his public persona, disarming people by saying “I’m just a country boy from Lumberton.” Cox says he once tried to get Crump to moderate his Southern accent, but “He would not have any of it.”
Those who know him best say Crump treats his clients like family. He calls them during the holidays to see how they’re faring. And he has a rare way of greeting people he’s close to.
“Every time he sees me, he says ‘I love you, Ms. Carr,’” says Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, the Black man in New York who was killed by a White police officer who subdued him with an illegal chokehold. Garner’s gasp of “I can’t breathe” sparked nationwide protests.
Genae Crump describes her husband as the legal version of “Sully” — the pilot who calmly landed a US Airways flight in the Hudson River — because of the way he steers grieving families through a crisis.
“He’s just always calm and collected, and he’s always trying to see the good in situations,” she says. “It’s always hopeful talk.”
What keeps Crump going
There are plenty of famous people whose public sentiments don’t match their private behavior. But Crump put his belief in family in action when he learned two of his nephews were going astray as teenagers. He adopted them and helped co-raise them with one of their aunts.
One of those nephews, Marcus Crump, is now a college graduate who has started his own film company. The other nephew, Chancellor, attends Florida A&M University.
Marcus Crump credits his uncle with taking him on trips to science centers and Walt Disney World and inviting him to his speeches. When he started seeing Crump fight so hard for others on TV, something clicked.
“It changed my mindset,” Marcus says. “I felt bigger. I dreamed bigger. I didn’t think small. I get that from him.”
Marcus cites a playful side of his father figure that others don’t see: Crump’s love of Queen’s “We are the Champions,” his fondness for the film “My Cousin Vinny” and his taste for Twizzlers.
He’s also watched his uncle expand his influence beyond the courtroom. Crump produced and hosted an A&E documentary, “Who Killed Tupac?” Netflix is producing a documentary on the impact of his work. And he’s launched Brooklyn Media, a company named after his daughter that will create films and TV series centered around civil rights and inequality.
Marcus raises a question that others close to Crump often ponder.
“I don’t know how we can get him to slow down,” he says.
Neither does Crump.
Ask him about the toll of being at the center of virtually every racial flashpoint in America, and he cites people like his Ma Mittie.
“Our great-grandmothers and great-grandfathers were in the tobacco fields during slavery, and they didn’t give up hope for a better tomorrow — and they had it much worse than us,” he says.
But when will that better tomorrow come? The killings of unarmed Black and brown people go on. The grieving families of victims continue to assemble before cameras. And Crump continues to leave his family to wade into another racial firestorm.
Crump recently told CBS so many unarmed Black people keep being turned into hashtags — victims of police brutality whose deaths go viral on social media — that he feels more pressure than ever.
“That’s my recurring nightmare, that I’m running out of time,” he said. “I can’t keep up with the hashtags. I mean, it’s just happening too quickly.”
Perhaps Crump will be able to stop if this happens:
One day he will ask an audience if they can name a Black person who has recently been killed by excessive police force. But the only awkward silence that follows will come because no one can actually think of such a person. The deaths of Black men like George Floyd and women like Breonna Taylor will seem as distant as a “For Whites Only” sign from the Jim Crow era.
Maybe then — just maybe — Ben Crump will slow down.