It had only been two days since a neighborhood watch volunteer had fatally shot the 17-year-old, and surely an arrest was imminent, thought Crump, who has pursued several civil rights cases against law enforcement agencies.
Another day passed. Nothing.
Two more days passed. Still nothing.
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“I believed in my heart of hearts they were going to arrest him,” Crump said Thursday in an interview. “I said, `Oh, they are going to arrest him. You don’t need me on this.'”
More than a month later, there still has been no arrest.
But thanks largely to Crump’s efforts, the case has stirred marches and rallies around the nation, merited comment from President Barack Obama, led to the resignation of the Sanford police chief and brought scrutiny from the U.S. Department of Justice into this Orlando suburb of 55,000 residents.
“When you have the president commenting on the matter and you have celebrities and politicians wearing their hoodies as a symbol of the cause that you’re representing, and it has taken over the world’s attention, this is overwhelming in a sense,” said Crump, who was in Washington for several days of meeting with members of Congress and appearing on national news shows. “We’ve been pushing relentlessly day and night.”
Crump’s strategy for making the case international news began with a series of heart-wrenching news conferences in which Martin’s parents spoke about their loss. Florida media outlets began to notice. Then, he enlisted U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown to help convince authorities to release 911 tapes, recordings that brought the case to the attention of national media. He’s further ratcheted pressure on authorities by organizing a series of rallies and working with national civil rights figures such as Al Sharpton.
The push began not long after Martin’s death on the night of Feb. 26. Martin, wearing a hoodie, was walking home from a Sanford, Fla. convenience store when he was spotted by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who called a police dispatcher to report Martin as suspicious. There was a confrontation, and Martin was shot. Zimmerman has told detectives he shot Martin in self-defense.
Martin’s death raises questions about the role of vigilantism, racial profiling and Florida’s self-defense laws. Under those laws, a person isn’t obligated to retreat in a threatening situation. Zimmerman’s father has said his son wasn’t profiling Martin and that he isn’t racist. Zimmerman’s mother is Hispanic and his father is white.
Crump was first contacted by a cousin of Trayvon Martin’s father. The cousin, a Miami attorney, was familiar with Crump’s civil rights work in Florida. Before Martin’s death, Crump was best known for representing the parents of a teenage boy who died after an encounter with guards at a Florida boot camp in 2006. The videotaped beating of Martin Lee Anderson attracted national attention and led to the closure of the state’s boot camps for juvenile offenders.
Crump, 42, and his wife, Genae Angelique Crump, are raising two teenage boys who are the biological sons of Crump’s cousin. The oldest is Martin’s age.
“Trayvon hits home on many levels,” Crump said.
Crump and his law partner, Daryl Parks, are Tallahassee-based personal injury attorneys who primarily handle wrongful death and negligence cases. But their everyday work often involves civil rights issues.
“Daryl and Ben look at things in a broader perspective,” said James Messer, a Tallahassee attorney who serves on the board of the Tallahassee Bar Association with Crump. “While there may be a wrongful death issue, it involves, in their eyes, more than anything a civil rights cause … (Crump) has a passion for issues that have something to do with civil rights violations.”
Crump’s advocacy on behalf of Martin’s family has gotten the attention of established civil rights leaders. Both Sharpton and Jesse Jackson flew down to Sanford to participate in rallies and a meeting before the Sanford city commission.
“He has integrity, smarts and an uncanny ability,” Jackson said about Crump. “He is not flashy. He is just kind of a basic, old, solid-thinking, country lawyer.”
Crump gets the “country” part from growing up in Lumberton, N.C., a tiny town not far from Fort Bragg. His mother held down two jobs as a factory worker and hotel housekeeper. His biological father was a soldier at Fort Bragg. He was raised by his mother and her high school sweetheart who later became her husband. Crump regards him as his father. The oldest of nine siblings and step-siblings, Crump grew up in an extended family of cousins, uncles and aunts headed by his beloved great-grandmother, Mittie.
“She had a switch in her hand when we came home from school. She would ask what we learned in school that day, and she used that switch to enforce the importance of that question,” Crump said of his great-grandmother.
Crump would spend all day every Sunday in Pentecostal church, often missing the chance to watch his Dallas Cowboys play on television. The influence of the church is visible in his public speeches when he often sounds more like a preacher than a lawyer. His interest in civil rights stems from attending segregated schools until he was in fifth grade.
“It was a situation to me, that I said, `Why do people on that side of the tracks have it so much better than people on our side of the tracks?'” he said.
When Crump was in high school, his mother sent him to Fort Lauderdale to live with the man he regarded as his father so he could have a male influence and be exposed to the culture that the bigger city offered.
He attended college and law school and Florida State University, where he met Parks, his future law partner. In his personal statement for law school, he said his hero was Thurgood Marshall, the U.S. Supreme Court’s first black justice. After graduating, Parks and Crump formed their own law firm, Tallahassee-based, Parks and Crump.
Crump dodges the question of how, and if, he is being compensated by Trayvon Martin’s parents.
“You do it because it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “As long as you make your goal to do right and do good, all of the money and financial material stuff will come.”