When Ben Crump receives death threats for defending Black clients in civil rights cases, he shows up to work the next day anyway.
“I report them to the FBI, I take them seriously. And then you show up and you go do your job, because you can never let them see that they intimidate you. We have to show them that we’re willing to die for what we believe in,” Crump recalled telling the late actor Chadwick Boseman.
Crump has worked on nearly 300 civil rights cases since beginning his career in 1996, including those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, all of whom were shot or killed by police this year. He has also represented people affected by the Flint, Mich., water crisis and the Johnson & Johnson baby powder lawsuit, among many others.
Since he founded his law firm, Ben Crump Law, in 2016, it has expanded to 13 cities with a dozen attorneys and of counsel relationships with 50 more. A Netflix documentary about his life and career is also under production.
Crump spoke with Bloomberg Law about the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, whom Crump calls his “north star” and hero, and the equal justice mission that drives him, pausing only to take a call from Jacob Blake’s family.
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Bloomberg Law: How do you choose which cases to take on, and how do you balance them all?
Ben Crump: As many cases as I have, we turn down probably 95% of the calls we get. I take cases that not only will have an impact on the individual and their family but will have impact on society and impact many people. Like the George Floyd case, like Breonna’s case where it shocked my conscience, and I say, ‘We have to do this case, because it’s not only going to impact this family, it’s going to impact multiple families and communities of color and marginalized communities.’
That’s what I did when I got involved in the Flint water crisis and when I represented Jannie Ligons and other women who were raped by an Oklahoma City police officer. Those cases are going to have a larger impact beyond just that individual. With the rape case, it really was about Black women being sexually assaulted by police officers. I knew if we took on the case and focused attention on it, it would bring more attention to a larger issue.
I also have an incredible team of lawyers that I work with. An incredible team of investigators and paralegals. A lot of time, I get the attention, but it is a true team effort.
BL: As a civil rights lawyer, how do you feel when you take on these cases, and what is your goal for each?
BC: It is certainly emotional on a high level. And you do think, as you lay in bed at night, about trying to guarantee some justice for these families. As a civil lawyer, technically all we can do is bring a civil rights lawsuit or wrongful death lawsuit and recover money, which we have done on every case. We’ve never lost one of these civil rights cases.
We try to influence the criminal aspect, but the only people who can charge citizens and take away their liberty and put them in prison [are] the district attorney and the prosecutors. So you try to do everything in your power to influence the court of public opinion, so that hopefully, we’ll make the prosecutors do what they have never done in America, and that is hold police accountable for killing minorities.
I got this nickname, Black America’s Attorney General, and I take it to heart because I am trying to fight for minorities to have equal opportunities and the American dream, as well as equal access to justice. We want all our citizens to be able to have equal justice under the law.
BL: Do you ever feel burned out by your cases, and if you do, what keeps you motivated?
BC: I think stress comes with the job, but I lean on my faith, and I think a lot about what I’m fighting for. And that keeps me focused. I think about my seven-year-old daughter. I think about my boys, 22- and 26-years-old now, and I know that I’m fighting for their future because as many Black and Hispanic parents know, but by the grace of God, Trayvon Martin could have easily been your child. Breonna could have easily been your child.
But I have this constant, reoccurring nightmare about running out of time. They’re killing us so fast. We can barely keep up with the hashtags. And I have to find innovative ways to make America care about Black lives.
BL: How has your work changed or been affected by the pandemic, or other events of this year?
BC: I keep making an argument that we finally start acknowledging the two justice systems in America. While America is dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, we in Black America also have to deal with the Covid-1619 pandemic, representing the year Africans were brought to America and enslaved. About 401 years later, we are still dealing with systematic racism and oppression from that time to this one. During this pandemic, it seems that everything in America shut down except racism and discrimination.
We saw that lead to Ahmaud Arbery who was lynched for jogging while black. You saw it with the death of Breonna Taylor when she was killed in the sanctity of her own apartment. We saw it with George Floyd, who was killed when an officer put his knee on his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds. We saw it with Trayford Pellerin in Lafayette, La., who was shot in the back nine times. Jacob Black was shot in the back seven times on video, and then we see it in Los Angeles, Calif., when Dijon Kizzee was shot 15 times in the back. And this is all in a matter of five months in 2020.
BL: There are probably people out there who don’t like you or your work. Do you get death threats?
BC: Constantly. My heart is heavy when you ask me that question because I had my Hollywood debut in the movie “Marshall.” And I was so honored because it was about my hero, Thurgood Marshall, and Trayvon Martin’s parents and I were in the last scene in the movie with the recently departed Chadwick Boseman. When we were on set for those two days, I spent time with Chadwick, who was playing Thurgood Marshall, and he was very, very focused on asking me all these questions because he was trying to get his character right.
He and I had an hour-long conversation just about dealing with death threats. He kept asking me, ‘Black people love you, but these racist people hate you. Tell me the truth. What do you do when they give you death threats?’ I remember being fascinated by just how focused he was and how many questions he had.
BL: What did you tell him?
BC: I told him, you report it to the FBI, you don’t take it for granted because there are a lot of sick people out here in the world. And then you show up and you go do your job because you can never let them see that they intimidate you. We have to show them that we’re willing to die for what we believe in. Thurgood Marshall had it way worse than us, and he showed up case after case when he knew that the threat of them killing him was real, every minute. I feel like I have more security than Thurgood had, and so I have no excuse for not showing up.
As Chad and I had that conversation, he said, ‘Do you see the day when it could happen?’ I said I do, and that’s why I’m trying to do as much as I can because I don’t take any day for granted. I take very seriously what we’re doing and the impact it has on the world. I know others out there want to stop us from having an impact on the world, but I believe that this cause for equal justice for all people is my life’s mission.
BL: What advice do you have for young lawyers or others out there who are considering a career in civil rights litigation?
BC: Number one, I think we need as many civil rights lawyers as possible. We can’t have enough civil rights lawyers out here right now. Number two, they have to do it with conviction in their heart. This is not something you can do to try to get rich. You do this because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t think just because you decide to do civil rights work that you got to be poor. You can do good and do well doing civil rights work, but you have to have the conviction in your heart to do it, and it will show because you will be tested like no other doing this kind of work, all because of the discriminatory institutions that exist. All the cards are stacked against you. The laws were made to defend the system of inequity. You have to find ways to navigate and overcome them.