Civil-rights attorney Ben Crump. Photo: Nigel Parry
In the lobby of a luxury hotel in Atlanta, Ben Crump is meeting a new client for the first time. His face is round and somber as a war mask. He’s wearing a dark suit, a crisp white shirt with French cuffs, gold cuff links, a heavy gold watch, and a thick gold wedding ring. On his left lapel, a gold Eagle of Justice spreads its wings.
Like many of the lawsuits Crump takes on, this one seems destined to make national headlines. But unlike the explosive battles that made him famous — he represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Alesia Thomas, and Terence Crutcher and has worked on many, many less notorious Black Lives Matter cases — this one doesn’t involve a grieving relative, police violence, or a dead child. The man seated across from him is a successful financial-services executive, dressed with casual elegance in a dark blazer and knit shirt, who was educated at a prestigious HBCU and is accompanied by an old friend who happens to be a former state representative. His trouble started, he says, when he went into the wrong bank to cash a $2,000 check and the teller told him to wait while he checked with the branch manager. “I asked him if there was a problem, and he told me, ‘No, it’ll just be a second,’ ” the executive says. “Then a policewoman comes up and says, ‘I’m here for you.’ ” He laughs. “I thought she was just being friendly! Maybe she’s a client, you know.”
“Because you’ve never been arrested,” Crump says.
“I don’t get arrested,” he scoffs.
“And at some point she said, ‘Don’t run’?”
“When she was handcuffing me,” the executive answers. “She said, ‘I can tell you want to run. Don’t run.’ ” Looking freshly astonished, he asks, “Run where? And why?”
The check was a distribution from his 401(k), so it had two bank names on top. One was his home bank’s, the other that of the bank that managed his company’s 401(k) fund, and he thought he could cash it at either one. A vice-president did call to apologize a few days later, but the bank must not have told the police it was a mistake, because the charges haven’t been dropped. The executive isn’t sure he wants to raise a fuss — in his business, “arrested for bank fraud” isn’t the best thing to have at the top of your Google search. He’s only here because the former state representative called Crump and set up the meeting.
Crump sits still, coaxing out the details in a soft voice that mixes legal terminology with phrases like “how they done you.” The executive tells him the bank’s official story, which is that a branch manager called a fraud line and got the wrong information. But he’s not sure he believes it. He was on his way home from the gym, still wearing his workout clothes, and the bank was in Cobb County.
The former state representative explains: In black neighborhoods, people say Cobb is short for “Count on Being Busted.” It’s the richest and whitest part of Atlanta, home to Newt Gingrich and Bob Barr.
Pulling out his phone, Crump shows the executive a video he’s already put together from the security-cam footage. The title, superimposed over the entire clip, is “Banking While Black.” He wants to set up a press conference in the morning and release it to the media.
“Let’s talk about that,” the executive says nervously.
“How did you feel in the back of that police car?” Crump asks.
“Obviously, I went through a variety of feelings,” the executive says, then changes the subject.
Crump lets it go. But after a few minutes, the executive suddenly pops out an answer. “You asked how I felt? I was terrified. Because, the day before, I watched the Sandra Bland movie. And I just kept thinking, This is how it happens. This is how it happens.”
That triggers the executive’s memory — the four hours he spent in a little room with no windows, the fear he felt of getting raped or beaten, the inmate who noticed how nervous he was and said, “Relax, it’s not who you know, it’s who you blow.” He was there half the night before the police let him make a phone call. Nobody knew where he was. But the hardest part was losing his voice. From the time he walked into the bank to the moment he got out of jail, nobody would listen to anything he said. “That to me is what really happened,” he says. “Because I’m a person who’s able to explain what’s going on, and you’re always taught if you can just explain and you’re in the right, then it’s supposed to go okay.”
The truth, Crump admits, is that the bank would settle this case in a heartbeat. But the executive could also choose not to settle. “I think this video is going to go viral, and I think it’s gonna be a teachable moment for America. But, more importantly, it’s probably gonna save a lot of regular black folks from having to go to jail.”
The executive mulls it over.
“This is your Rosa Parks moment,” the state representative tells him.
“You don’t even have to say anything if you don’t want to — the video will speak for itself,” Crump says.
“Don’t you think we could still get accomplished what we need to get accomplished without — ”
“If you want to make an impact — ” Crump begins.
The executive jumps in: “What if you just wanna be a selfish ass?”
Photo: Nigel Parry
Five years ago, sitting in the lobby of a hotel in St.Louis, I asked Crump why he became a lawyer. It was the day of Michael Brown Jr.’s memorial service. Thousands of people had gathered in the street outside, their faces contorted by grief and rage, tears streaming down their cheeks, chanting “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” and “No Justice, No Peace.” He told me about growing up in a little North Carolina town called Lumberton, about his mother working in the tobacco fields, about watching one of his uncles get beat up by a policeman for the crime of getting into a white college: “I guess he wanted to let him know that no matter where he went, he was always going to be black.”
Some of his stories seemed honed through retelling to an unbelievable perfection, like parables from the Bible, and a phrase he often used to introduce them — “I’ll never forget” — was tinged with the reverence of an oath. He’d never forget his great-grandmother, who raised at least a dozen grandchildren while their parents worked, some not even family. If you said you were too sick to go to school, she’d hold up a switch and say, “Are you gonna die? No? Then you can go to school.” His mother taught him about unions and working-class solidarity. When he won first prize in an essay contest, and her supervisor at the Converse factory wouldn’t let her take the day off to go to the ceremony, she said, “I don’t care what you do. I’m gonna be there to support my son.” When she got back, he fired her. So she cleaned hotel rooms and worked in the tobacco fields. And he was born in 1969 — this wasn’t ancient days.
Many of his stories centered on the railroad tracks that ran through the middle of Lumberton. The white people lived north of them, the black people on the south side. The only hospital was on the north side, the only library was on the north side. But when he was going into fifth grade, his mother told him the white kids and the black kids were going to start going to school together because of a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall and a case called Brown v. Board of Education. September came and the school bus took them across the tracks. “And I’ll never forget,” he said, “there was this little white girl who had a hundred-dollar bill. My mother would have had to work a whole week — maybe two weeks — to get a hundred-dollar bill. I was like, ‘Who gave you that?’ She’s like, ‘My parents gave it to me, and I can do what I want with it!’ ”
You had to cross the tracks to play on Lumberton’s youth football team too, so Crump’s uncle Jesse — the only person he knew who had a car — used to drive him and his friends to practice, six or seven of them packed in like beans in a jar. Then the city issued a rule that all football players had to have a phone at home. “That pretty much ruled out most of the black kids,” Crump said. But Uncle Jesse had a phone, and he told the recreation lady, “These are my boys, call me.” She said, “Jesse, you trying to tell me that all of these are your children?” “Yes, they’re all my boys,” he said again, trying avoid a direct lie. “No way are all of these your biological sons,” she insisted, and Uncle Jesse got stubborn. “Yes, they are,” he said. “They’re all my boys.” So they all got to play football that year.
By the time he left that town, at 13, Crump knew what he wanted to do. He got his law degree from Florida State University in 1995 and started a two-man firm in Tallahassee with a classmate, Daryl Parks, splitting time between bread-and-butter work like personal-injury cases and “trumped-up charges against black people.”
Crump and Parks won some impressive settlements — $10 million for a man whose face was burned off by a gas explosion, $13 million for the family of a mother and child who were killed in a plane crash, $5 million for the family of a preacher who was killed by a drunk driver. Crump had a way of selling a vision that was more like a political rainmaker than like another courtroom lawyer, a settlement counselor named Fernandez Anderson told me, giving the example of a difficult negotiation with an Avis executive who was nickel-and-diming them over the payout for a man who’d been paralyzed for life by an Avis car. “It was right before Christmas, and Ben does something only Ben can do — he appealed to the humanity of the guy. He said, ‘Don’t you want to go home and tell your son you did something good for Christmas?’ It had nothing to do with the law, nothing to do with facts, it was just one person talking to another person. And we walked out of there with the deal done.”
In the case that put him on the road to national fame, he sued the Florida state government over the death of a 14-year-old boy named Martin Lee Anderson in one of its “boot camps” for troubled teenagers and came away with $10 million. Even better, Florida shut down all its teen boot camps. But seven guards had beaten Anderson for more than 30 minutes, then held him down and forced him to inhale ammonia until he suffocated. Still, the coroner said he died from a blood disorder. Without the protests and media uproar, Crump says, they’d be beating black kids in boot camps right now. And despite all that, the jury that sat in judgment of the guards a year later — an all-white jury — brought back a “not guilty” verdict. When it comes to the police-violence cases, Crump’s track record is not as impressive as he wants it to be. That’s not because he doesn’t win — he’s fought about 250 so far and won cash settlements in almost all of them. But the killing goes on. “I used to think that if we made a city pay $5 million or $10 million every time they shot black or brown people, they would stop doing it,” he says, “but as we’ve seen, the only way they’re going to stop doing it is if they go to jail.”
The Trayvon Martin case set the pattern for everything that Crump is doing today. The family heard about him through a relative, a Florida lawyer who had followed his career. He showed up within days of the shooting and brought on a local lawyer and a publicity specialist, and soon protests started bubbling up across the state. Then kids on the internet started putting out memes like the faceless hoodie, which launched the Million Hoodie March — “The image of that hoodie changed more minds than a thousand court cases,” Crump says — and President Obama kicked the story into hyperdrive with his famous remark that Martin could have been his own son. Grieving relatives began calling Crump from all over the country — he says he gets as many as 50 calls a day now — and he became a fixture on TV news.
Two years later, he got a call from Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, who told him, “Ben, they need you in St. Louis!” Crump turned on the television, saw Mike Brown Jr. lying facedown in the street. Soon, he was making headlines all over the world with incendiary quotes like “Their baby was executed in broad daylight.” Far-right websites like People’s Pundit Daily and The Daily Stormer have called him a “race hustler” who should be disbarred for inciting the Ferguson riots. Crump offers no apology: “They’re killing our children and they tell us not to make a disturbance? We try to disturb.”
In the years that followed, Crump became a perpetual-motion media machine, investigating the death of Tupac Shakur in a five-part A&E documentary, hosting a documentary series about wrongful convictions for TV One, and even acting — he made a cameo appearance as the young lawyer who joins forces with Thurgood Marshall in the last scene of Marshall. Last fall, he started his own production company, which is now making two documentary series for Netflix. “I don’t think there’s anyone else like him,” says Kenneth Mack, a professor of law at Harvard. “It’s actually hard to keep track of all the things he’s done.”
This strategy of showmanship and vilification worries even some who are sympathetic to the cause. “We black people make race the central theme in a discussion of crime, policing, and punishment in this country at our peril,” Glenn Loury, a professor of social sciences at Brown University, wrote in 2015. “My fear is that a discourse which readily cites the race of a citizen and the race of a cop as the touchstone of moral outrage — ‘Yet another unarmed black teenager is accosted by yet another white cop!’ — invites a counter-discourse in which the race of the perpetrators and victims of everyday street crimes comes to be accepted as a legitimate topic of public argument.” This is exactly what happened when “White Lives Matter” became a slogan on the right. It can backfire in other ways, too — the state prosecutors who brought charges against Trayvon Martin’s killer failed to get a conviction, and it’s possible that the publicity Crump stirred up was partly to blame, pushing them to overreach with a second-degree-murder charge. “Would I approve of every use of the media he’s engaged in?” Mack says. “No. But as long as there have been civil-rights lawyers, all the way back to Thurgood Marshall, they’ve tried to publicize their cases and garner support. It’s simply part of the job.”
Crump frames his response in legal terms: “We get the opportunity to at least put America on notice, and notice is two-thirds of the law. When you see that policeman shooting bullet after bullet into Laquan McDonald, or Philando Castile’s girlfriend crying in the next seat while he bleeds to death, or Mike Brown lying there in the street for four hours with all those black people cursing and fussing behind the police tape, you see what black people have known forever.”
Advocating for Trayvon Martin in 2012. Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
The morning after the “Banking While Black” meeting, Crump calls me with bad news — the executive decided he needed more time to think, so the press conference is on hold.
I ask him what he’ll do next. This is the schedule he gives me:
Sunday: Tallahassee. Going to church with his wife and daughter.
Monday: Birmingham. Meeting with the parents of Emantic “E.J.” Bradford, a 21-year-old who was killed in a suburban mall by a police officer.
Tuesday: Little Rock. Interviewing victims of a series of “no knock” police raids.
Wednesday: Sacramento. Holding a press conference with the family of Stephon Clark, who was killed in his grandmother’s backyard by two police officers who thought the cell phone in his hand was a gun.
Thursday: Atlanta. Meeting a woman who can’t get a murder conviction off her police record even though she was declared innocent ten years ago. Also the “Banking While Black” press conference, he hopes. And Tallahassee, to get some clothes and attend a protest at city hall for the right of felons to vote, which the citizens of Florida restored in a referendum the Republican legislature is trying to reverse.
Friday: Memphis. Giving a speech to a group of black law students.
Saturday: Lumberton. Gathering evidence for a lawsuit against the international conglomerate that owns the railroad tracks. Also, Chapel Hill, to —
I stop him there. “You’re going to Lumberton?” He sketches out the story, which is also outlined in a class-action suit for which he’s hoping to recruit additional claimants. A multibillion-dollar international conglomerate called CSX owns the tracks at the center of town now, he says, and it ignored the official state studies that show a significant risk of a catastrophic flood coming through a railroad underpass on the Lumber River levee. Then Hurricane Matthew arrived, causing $250 million in damage. Crump rushed up from Tallahassee in a panic. Uncle Jesse was going through chemotherapy, and he had diabetes, too; how was he going to survive a flood? When he finally pulled up to the house, he saw his uncle crying in the street, his home destroyed by a wall of water six feet high. “He said something so deep,” Crump tells me. “He said, ‘It’s all gone, it’s all gone, everything.’ And he said, ‘We need you to make them do right by us.’ ”
After that, the city started planning a flood-control system, but CSX refused to attend the meetings. Two years later, as Hurricane Florence started roaring up the coast, the city tried to organize a sandbag brigade, but CSX refused to give it permission to step on its land. The governor finally issued an emergency order for CSX to back down, but by then the rain was already falling.
This time, fortunately, Uncle Jesse was in a FEMA house on higher ground. But two years later, after his fifth heart attack, he’s still living in that FEMA house. His friends and relatives have scattered, and the life he built is gone forever. So, yes, he’s going to sue the railroad company. “It’s a burden on me,” Crump says. “Can I get it done before he leaves this Earth?”
With the parents of Michael Brown in 2014. Photo: Jeff Roberson Photo/AP
Crump is the most ferocious networker I’ve ever seen. Shaquille O’Neill, Jesse Jackson, and Michael Jordan are just members of Omega Psi Phi, the largest international black fraternity in the world. Crump is its Grand Counselor. He was the president of the National Bar Association. He’s on the boards of the Innocence Project and the National Black Justice Coalition. He’s been to the White House with Oprah Winfrey and spent quality time with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who produced his documentary on Tupac Shakur — names he’s not shy about dropping, though he does it with a tone of wonder and immediately follows with a promise never to forget the little black boy who grew up in the projects of Lumberton. The high moral purpose he projects draws more people to his cause. Why did Al Sharpton show up at Ferguson? “Because Crump called,” Sharpton told me. “There are people I make money with, but it’s all about the money,” Fernandez Anderson told me. “With Ben, you feel like you’re doing something for a higher cause.”
In Tallahassee at Sunday dinner, I sit next to his mother. “Did he tell you about the letter to President Carter?” she asks.
When her son was in fourth grade, she says, he sent a letter informing the president of the United States of the racial divisions in Lumberton. Even the schools were fancier on the north side, he said, with big American flags flying outside. Would Carter please give his school an American flag?
Carter sent the flag.
And oh, how her son loved the microphone, she says. He’d get up in church at Christmas and Easter and give speeches that lasted for hours, and everybody would applaud.
When Crump drops her off at home, they stop in front of a picture of a dark woman with a face like a gravestone. It’s his great-grandmother, Mittie. “Tell the saying that she always told you,” his mother commands. “ ‘We’ve done so much with so little …’ ”
Smiling, Crump obeys: “ ‘Black people have done so much with so little, we’re qualified to do almost anything with almost nothing.’ ”
Tell the story about the newspaper, she says.
Crump’s expression gets almost dreamy. Mittie couldn’t read, he says, but when he was in first or second grade, she took out a newspaper subscription and they started sounding out the words together. He learned about Mother Teresa and Margaret Thatcher, the fights over affirmative action and the war in Iran. That showed him there was a world beyond Lumberton. She made him promise not to smoke or drink, too, and he’s never had a cigarette or let alcohol touch his lips. She would tell him, “You’re gonna be the one. You’re going to make it better for our people.”
After kissing his mother goodbye, Crump hurries to his office to go over his pending cases with his new partner, Scott Carruthers — two years ago, Carruthers approached Crump and Parks with the idea of starting a national firm. Crump wanted to do it and Parks did not. Now Crump and Carruthers take on giant companies like Johnson & Johnson and Gilead Sciences over allegedly defective products that disproportionately affected black communities.
They start with the Stephon Clark case in Sacramento. “What do you want to put in the press release?” Carruthers asks.
“I want to keep it real simple,” Crump says. “There’s a video that shows they killed him when he was running away, they let him lie on the ground — no first aid, no effort to save his life — and what I always tell the families: We can’t control what the DA does in criminal court, but we can hold the city of Sacramento accountable in civil court.”
He’s feeling good about Birmingham. Yes, the attorney general took the Bradford case out of the hands of the black district attorney and black mayor, whose city has a majority-black population. And yes, this is the same attorney general who once sued the previous black mayor for covering a Confederate monument. And yes, the AG is still refusing to release videos of Bradford’s killing, claiming they don’t tell the whole story. But Crump sees hope in that. In the Laquan McDonald case in Chicago, the DA kept the video under wraps for more than a year because one look was enough to tell you the officer was guilty of coldblooded murder — he shot a 17-year-old 16 times while he was walking away. If the AG keeps stonewalling, and Crump raises enough of a public outcry, he might get the video the DA in Birmingham showed him of the killer fist-bumping with his partner over E.J.’s body. That would go viral for sure, and he’d filed a lawsuit to get it released.
As the meeting ends, Crump brings up a new case. Just a few months ago, a woman came up to him after a speech and said, “I know Trayvon was big, but this is going to be your biggest case. Can you meet with me for 30 minutes?” It turned out her great-great-great-grandfather, a first-generation slave, had been photographed by a Harvard professor who was trying to prove that pure-blooded Africans are biologically inferior, closer to apes than human beings — this was in 1850. She wanted those pictures. Harvard refused to give them to her. And Harvard had used the photographs in discussions about universities’ facing their history with slavery — can you believe that?
At a memorial for E.J. Bradford Jr. in 2018. Photo: Shauna A. Stuart/The Birmingham News/Al.com
Monday morning, Crump flies to Birmingham for his press conference with the Bradford family. One TV crew shows up. With grim faces, Bradford’s parents tell the camera their story — the police “vilified” their son’s character on TV and didn’t admit they shot the wrong man until the next night. But Crump’s statement is what makes the news. “The video will be the same today as it was on November 22, the night E.J. was killed,” he says. “And the same as it will be at the time of trial, unless somebody alters it. The video is the video is the video.”
Afterward, Bradford’s parents meet Crump in another hotel lobby. “They didn’t even cover him up,” E.J. Sr. fumes. “They kept him laying out there like a piece of meat.”
“Like he didn’t belong to anyone,” says Bradford’s mother, April Pipkins.
“Like didn’t nobody love this child.”
The hatred they saw on social media enrages them too. “Somebody said, ‘All he did was rob and steal.’ My son is dead, and you posting this stuff on Facebook?”
“Say he shot somebody’s house.”
“Say he was a thug.”
Taken in isolation, the death of their son had a familiar Rorschach-test quality. Shots rang out in the mall in Hoover, the richest and whitest suburb of Birmingham. Two people were wounded, and the policeman saw him with a gun in his hand and made what some people would consider the obvious assumption. This argument enrages E.J. Sr., who was a policeman himself for 20 years. The officer who killed his son didn’t shout “Police!” or “Drop the gun!” He pulled the trigger five seconds after the first burst of gunfire. “That’s not a justifiable shooting,” he says. “Especially when your first shot is in his head and, as they’re falling, you put two more in them.”
The police didn’t even call them to say their son was dead.The AG hasn’t talked to them once. He refuses to release the name of the officer who fired the shots. And the mall reopened the next day. E.J. Sr. glances at the black faces around the table. “But Hoover’s got their own set of rules, as we all know.” he says, his voice dripping with bitter fury.
With the family of Markeis McGlockton in 2018. Photo: Douglas R. Clifford Photo/AP
After the meeting, Crump’s office calls. A storm front is heading south, one so large the airport might have to close. Instead of canceling his meeting in Little Rock and hunkering down in a nice hotel, Crump recruits the nearest person with a car. He wants to drive to Atlanta and catch a plane there.
On the way out of town, he remembers he hasn’t eaten and spots a Chick-fil-A. In the parking lot a few minutes later, he prays over his takeout bag: “Dear God, please watch over E.J. Bradford and Stephon Clark and …” Eight or ten names later, he wraps up with a personal request: “Lord, please put an angel on every corner of this car.”
On the highway, he returns to his obsessions: There’s no way the Alabama AG is going to bring charges against that police officer, he says. He knows it, Bradford’s parents know it, anybody who’s black in America knows it. He’s unyielding on this point. When I tell him that if I were a cop who saw a kid running through a crowded mall with a gun in his hand seconds after a shooting, I probably would have shot him too, he fires off an indignant rebuttal. Police officers killed Tamir Rice within seconds of seeing him with a gun, just like Bradford, then we find out he was 12 years old and the gun was just a toy, and they still get off. Dylann Roof goes into a black church and kills nine people, and they bring him Burger King. Latandra Ellington wrote a note to her aunt saying a prison guard threatened to “beat me to death and mess me like a dog,” the aunt called the prison, and ten days later they found Latandra dead in her cell —
His phone rings. It’s one of his agents in Hollywood. “Hey, Cam, I heard you had an awesome trip,” he begins, schmoozing the guy like he was born in the William Morris mail room. Then he gets down to business. “Netflix said 350, but we can’t say the deal isn’t exclusive …”
Hanging up, he launches back into his litany of wrongful deaths. He won’t debate the specifics of each case. To him, the real problem is the “default assumption” that the black person might be guilty. If you consider the radical racial disparity in drug convictions in America, his point is unassailable. But if you look at the specifics of each crime, the Rorschach test kicks in — is this particular police officer guilty? His phone rings again. This time, it’s his PR person, calling about the press release for “Banking While Black,” which might go out on Thursday. “I want to be sly about how we put it out,” he tells her. “I’m worried they’ll drop the charges when they find out I’m involved.”
When he hangs up, he tells me about a call he just got from a new pair of grieving parents. Their son was a college student in Maryland. His name was Richard Collins. He was a week away from graduating. The leaders of his ROTC program called him “a model cadet,” “a young man who did everything he was supposed to do.” He was standing at a bus stop when a student named Sean Urbanski allegedly came up and stabbed him in the chest. The police later found out he was a member of a Facebook group called Alt-Reich Nation. One of his classmates posted, “Fuck yeah, Sean!!!!! That’s what happens when niggers get frosty with an OG!”
He wants to take the case. He really does. But he doesn’t know whom to sue. The killer’s parents? The University? America? Whom do you sue to make this stop?
His phone rings. It’s Carruthers calling about the Stephon Clark case. “Let me grab this real quick,” he says.
He’s still saying hello when the phone rings again. It’s another call from his agent. “One sec,” he tells Carruthers. “That’s outstanding,” Crump says. “We’ll pull the trigger in the morning.”
Back to Carruthers. “Okay, I’m ready, let’s talk strategy.”
With the grandmother of Stephon Clark in 2018. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli Photo/AP
Crump scrambles his schedule again on Tuesday. The rain canceled his trip to Little Rock, and the “Banking While Black” executive is wavering again. That afternoon, he meets a legal consultant at the Commerce Club in Atlanta to talk over some cases. He stayed up until three in the morning studying case law, but his shirt is freshly ironed and his suit doesn’t have a single wrinkle. The Eagle of Justice is pinned to its left lapel. Everyone seems to know him. A man who owns a security firm comes over to give him a business card, telling him to call if he ever needs a bodyguard.
He spends Wednesday largely in his hotel room, preparing his cases and making phone calls. He meets with the woman who can’t get the murder conviction off her record. On Thursday, he flies down to Tallahassee to get a fresh suit and give a speech on the steps of the state capital. One in every five black men in Florida is a felon, he tells the crowd. He calls it “killing them softly,” because then nobody will question anything the police want to do to you. “Once you get a felony conviction, you’re the walking dead. You just haven’t gotten your death certificate yet.”
On Friday, he heads to Memphis to give his speech to the black law students. When that’s over, he finally catches the plane to North Carolina. Twelve more hours and he’ll be back in Lumberton. But first he has to make a quick stop in Virginia, where he’ll meet with Richard Collins’s parents in the airport and get right back on the plane.
Announcing a lawsuit against Harvard University in 2019. Photo: Kevin Hagen/Getty Images
Lumberton looks like any other small town, with its library, courthouse, and few grand homes, the others more modest but mostly well tended. “This is the north side,” Crump says.
Then we cross the railroad tracks. A cluster of squat brick buildings with the institutional look of a low-security prison is the first thing we see. We pass a sign that says turner terrace and park in one of the driveways. Crump gets out of the car and stares up at a second-floor window, silent for a moment. “This was home,” he says.
He takes out his phone: “Hey, Ma, guess where we at? 107 Holly Street.”
She asks about their old church. Are they rebuilding yet?
“Our church is never coming back,” he tells her.
“They’re tearing down all the history,” she says.
“We’re going to represent them, Mama,” he promises.
He stops by Uncle Jesse’s FEMA house, a two-story condo in a planned development that could be Anywhere, U.S.A. Uncle Jesse sits in an easy chair, round and smiling. “It’s our way to take the Lord with you every day,” he tells me. “That’s what I tell all my nephews and nieces — learn your Scripture and take a little time out with the Lord.”
Crump sits on the edge of an armchair with a loving gaze. “Every time I go to trial, I call him and we go through the Scriptures I need to say seven times a day.”
Uncle Jesse gives a satisfied nod, his eyes down and his thoughts inward. “When you really serve God and stay in that book,” he tells me, “you come to the conclusion that everything we do, he loves it.”
We drive to a small white church. Inside, every pew is full. The men are wearing blazers and business shirts, the women dresses. Crump thanks the pastor for the use of his church and tells them he’s here to fight for them. He talks about Uncle Jesse crying outside his house, saying he lost everything. “And by everything,” Crump says, “he meant the pictures of his wedding and their newborn babies, the family Bibles passed down from his great-great-grandmother with birth dates and death dates of their ancestors written in the back.” Indignation rises in his voice. “Now, the CSX lawyers are going to say that house wasn’t worth more than $35,000 or $40,000, but man, that claim is worth so much more. Uncle Jesse worked his whole life to make those mortgage payments. He was going to leave those Bibles for his children.”
In the pews, heads nod.
Crump spots a familiar face in the audience. “Ms. Bensie, you’ve been to his house many times.” She nods again, and others nod with her. This is why he went to law school, he says. A multibillion-dollar corporation could have done the right thing, but instead they decided that this community didn’t matter, that our lives don’t matter, that those black and brown people from South Lumberton weren’t going to amount to anything anyway. “But we’re not gonna let them devalue or trivialize our community and our houses and our family legacies,” he promises. “We’re not going to let them say our lives don’t matter.” He paraphrases a famous quote from Marshall. “The basis of the American Constitution is simply this — that a black baby born to the most impoverished black mother, like my mama from Turner’s Terrace, has the same exact rights as the most affluent white mother, by simply drawing its first breath as an American.” That’s not the case in America today, he says, but it’s a goal worth fighting for. By standing up for Lumberton, he says, they can make America live up to its ideals and finally become the shining city that the Founders promised — they can make America be America for all Americans.
When he finishes, hands shoot up all over the room. Will they pay off the loan you took to fix your house? Will they pay the doctor’s bills you ran up because of the stress? What about the computers at the community center? What about the insurance bills that keep going up and up? And what about the PTSD — every time it rains, people get crazy. He tells them to gather all the documents they can, every bill and receipt. He tells them that God is looking down on the injustice they suffered and that God will smile on them because he loves justice. “Y’all from Lumberton,” he says. “You know the saying: ‘A closed mouth won’t get fed.’ Well, we ain’t gonna be closed-mouthed. We’re going to try to make them see there’s a heaven above and a hell below.”
In the months that followed, the attorney general of Alabama announced his decision: The officer who shot E.J. Bradford followed procedure. The prosecutor in Sacramento also declined to press charges against the officers who shot Stephon Clark. The executive in the “Banking While Black” case decided to pass on his Rosa Parks moment — he couldn’t face the public glare — and traded a nondisclosure agreement for a settlement. The heirs of the racist Harvard professor joined Crump’s cause, asking Harvard to give the family the photos, but Harvard is still mulling it over. “It’s kind of funny when you think about it,” Crump says. “Black people in America are like domestic-violence victims — no matter how many times we’re bruised, no matter how many times America breaks our heart, we still want to believe there’s going to be justice and equality for all.”
He pauses. “But that’s why we fight. You have to properly diagnose the problem before you can cure a problem. So I believe we’re gonna cure this disease of racism. Just like we’re in a battle against cancer, we’re in a battle against racism, and I believe we’re gonna win that battle and find the cure for cancer, and I believe we’re gonna somehow find a cure for racism. You’ve gotta believe it. It’s the only thing that can make you keep going.”
*This article appears in the June 24, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!