TAMPA, Fla. — Before Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor and other black people died at the hands of white police officers or self-proclaimed vigilantes, there was Martin Lee Anderson.
Anderson, a 14-year-old black teenager, died in 2006 after being kicked and beaten by guards at a juvenile boot camp in Florida. His family was looking for a lawyer to seek justice. No white lawyer wanted to do it.
It was the first nationally high-profile civil rights case for Ben Crump, a black attorney from Florida. Now, Crump is a familiar presence in almost every major civil rights case in the country.
“Ben has always been a fighter for justice … to shed light on things that are wrong,” said Leon Russell, chairman of the NAACP’s national board of directors.
Staff at the facility where Anderson died were acquitted of criminal charges, but Crump later won a civil case for the boy’s family.
It was only the beginning.
When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot on February 26, 2012, at a condominium complex in Sanford, Florida, his killer, George Zimmerman, was not initially arrested. Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, was a self-proclaimed armed neighborhood watchman who eventually claimed self-defense and was acquitted of murder charges.
Martin, wearing a hoodie that would soon become an iconic image, was returning from a convenience store to his father’s condo with a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles when he was confronted by Zimmerman.
Crump pushed for Zimmerman’s arrest and joined many prominent civil rights leaders in organizing protests calling for charges.
It was the Trayvon Martin case that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement, and Crump deserves much of the credit for it, Reverend Jesse Jackson said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It was a new stream of consciousness,” Jackson said. “We decided not to go back. Everything else came out of there. Don’t black lives matter? It made a big difference.
Crump was called Attorney General for Black America for his tireless work on civil rights cases, especially those involving black people killed by police. In an interview, Crump said he doesn’t take this label lightly.
“I try as sincerely as possible to give a voice to those who have no voice,” Crump said. “If I can see further, it’s because I stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Crump, 52, was born in Lumberton, North Carolina, one of nine siblings, but ended up attending high school in Plantation, Florida. From there it was Florida State University for college and law school, then a law firm with his partner Daryl Parks in Tallahassee. They took on the Martin Lee Anderson case.
Now Crump has his own firm handling civil rights cases across the country. He recites an African proverb to illustrate why it is so important to stand up for black people who are victims of injustice.
“As long as the lion hunter tells the story of the hunt and the lions never tell the story, then all the glory will always go to the lion hunter,” Crump said. “Unless you have the historical knowledge of the culture, to be passed on from generation to generation, we are doomed to repeat the lessons we should have learned.”
Crump, who is seen almost anywhere a civil rights case emerges, still lives in Tallahassee with his wife Genae, who is vice-principal at a Leon County public school for at-risk children, and their daughter, Brooklyn. He has won financial settlements in about 200 police brutality cases, including a $27 million settlement for the family of George Floyd in the infamous Minneapolis case.
But it is not without its detractors. Samaria Rice, the mother of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot by a white Cleveland police officer while holding a toy gun in 2014, released a statement at the time that criticized both Black Lives Matter and Crump.
Samaria Rice said they should “resign, step back and stop monopolizing and capitalizing on our fight for justice and human rights”. The statement also asked if Crump understood Ohio law. “I sent it back 6-8 months in Tamir’s case,” she wrote.
But Jackson, who walked with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and was with King when he was assassinated in 1968, said Crump was part of the new generation of civil rights leaders.
“Now we have people at the state level and at the national level to hold people accountable. We will get justice,” Jackson said.
When Crump thinks about the Trayvon Martin case, he says it’s clear there’s still a lot of work to be done.
“Are we making progress? Are we going backwards?” he said. “I think of Trayvon Martin and the unknown Trayvon Martins so often when we think of American history. Who tells their story? Every day is a new day for us to write history. ”