CLEARWATER — Benjamin Crump paced the narrow hallway, squeezing through the crowd as the booming bass of Gospel music escaped from the sanctuary. He smiled and greeted the families of Trayvon Martin and Markeis McGlockton, who had assembled outside a small room where reporters waited.
Dressed in a blue pinstripe suit and yellow tie, Crump dabbed a handkerchief against his forehead and gulped water.
"Rev. Al Sharpton is en route," he announced. "We’ve got to get the gubernatorial candidates in here."
This was a recent Sunday on the second floor inside St. John Primitive Baptist Church. Crump, 48, by now one of the most recognizable civil rights lawyers in America, was coordinating a news conference to keep public attention on the death of McGlockton, a black man shot by a white man who was not arrested because of the state’s stand your ground law.
It is the kind of case on which Crump has made his name. Six years ago, he represented the parents of Martin, the black teen who was shot to death by George Zimmerman. Crump was credited with making the case a national spectacle as he pressured authorities to make an arrest.
In the process, he established a reputation as the go-to advocate for cases involving race and injustice.
"The more we fought," he said, "the more our phone would ring."
Ask people who know him best, and they will tell you Crump’s ascension is rooted in a moral conviction to vigorously oppose racial injustice.
"Ben is the real deal when it comes to legitimate concerns over civil rights," said Robert Cox, a Tallahassee attorney and longtime friend.
Observers also note Crump’s ability to keep the public engaged.
"Ben realized that there are two courtrooms," Cox said. "And he knew that the media can be used to force the courts to do something."
There is a story that Crump tells. He brings it up whenever anyone asks about what drove him to the cause of civil rights.
It happened when he was in elementary school in his native Lumberton, N.C. Black children from the south side were bussed to the majority-white school. One day while waiting in the free lunch line, a young white girl pulled out a $100 bill and bought the more appetizing lunch items for several black children.
His mother, who worked two jobs to support three sons, would have to work all week to make $100, he said.
"I wondered how some people on one side of the tracks could have it so good and people on the other side of the tracks could have it so challenging," he said.
His mother later told him about the case of Brown vs. Board of Education, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation, and the lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who went on to become the nation’s first black Supreme Court justice.
Crump decided he wanted to be like Marshall, he said.
When he reached high school, he moved to Ft. Lauderdale, where he lived with his father. He attended South Plantation High School and played on the basketball team. He earned a scholarship to Florida State University, where he was active in student government and the black student union, among other activities.
Talbot "Sandy" D’Alemberte, the famed Florida law professor and former FSU president, recalled a program Crump started as an undergraduate to help students with writing deficiencies. He later had Crump as a law student, and was impressed with his oratorical skills.
"I hated like hell to speak behind Ben because he was always so good," D’Alemberte said.
While studying law at FSU, Crump got a job at the firm of Tallahassee attorney Tommy Warren. One of his tasks was to help review more than 30,000 claims in a $105-million class action discrimination lawsuit against Shoney’s restaurants.
"He knew what it was to be discriminated against," Warren said. "I don’t think he’d ever been exposed to the other end of it, where there was a victory and the victims were being compensated for the discrimination.
"He’s very unselfish and very committed to justice."
In 1996, Crump started his first law firm with friend Daryl Parks.
One of their first high-profile cases was the 2001 death of 2-year-old Zaniyah Hinson, who was left in a van by day care workers. The case resulted in a settlement of more than $2 million.
Crump ascended to statewide prominence in 2006, when he took up the case of Martin Lee Anderson, a 14-year-old boy who died as he was beaten by guards in a north Florida boot camp. Eight former boot camp employees were later acquitted of criminal charges. But civil litigation netted more than $10 million for Anderson’s family.
In that case, as he has done in many others, Crump garnered media attention by staging marches and demonstrations in order to pressure public officials.
When deciding whether to take a case, Crump said, he tries to pick those that he knows will "shock the conscience."
He found such a case with Trayvon Martin. He was angry, he said, when he learned that the police in Sanford did not immediately arrest the man he dubbed a "wannabe police officer." He worked to get Martin’s parents booked on national TV shows, to share their anguish and to demand justice.
The goal was to widen his reach.
"For every Trayvon Martin, I can give you 100 unknown Trayvon Martins who were killed in an even worse manner," he said.
"I want someone out there who is watching TV or reading the newspaper to think, what if I was a parent of a black child?" he said.
His efforts have not always brought praise.
Mark O’Mara, the criminal defense lawyer who ultimately won an acquittal for George Zimmerman, has criticized Crump’s efforts in that case. In a 2013 CNN interview, he accused the lawyer of misconstruing the facts of the case by suggesting that Zimmerman got away with a crime.
"If he believed that there was something here that was being swept under the rug, then get on into it," O’Mara told CNN. "I’m very okay with that. I think it was a made up story for purposes that had nothing to do with George Zimmerman."
Crump hears the criticism and takes it in stride.
"The height of arrogance is to think that everybody is going to love you," he said.
His client list grew longer. It included the families of Tamir Rice and Michael Brown, both young African American men, whose deaths at the hands of police generated outrage.
In 2017, he established a new firm, with the assistance of renowned Orlando personal injury attorney John Morgan. By then, Crump had rounded out an impressive resume.
President of the National Bar Association, comprised largely of black lawyers and judges. First black president of the FSU College of Law Board of Directors. National Trial Lawyers: Top 100.
The phones at Ben Crump Law in Tallahassee ring constantly.
Three weeks ago, Crump was chatting with his mother in North Carolina when she told him about the McGlockton case in Clearwater.
"You’ve got to try to help them, baby," she told him.
"If it’s meant to be," he said, "I will do what I can."
He later learned that his firm had already accepted the case.
On July 26, he stood with McGlockton’s girlfriend and parents outside the Pinellas County Judicial Center and demanded a thorough investigation of Michael Drejka, the shooter he labeled a "wannabe cop."
Days later, inside the sweltering church, Crump nodded before a bank of microphones as Sharpton called for the repeal of the stand your ground law and implored State Attorney Bernie McCabe to charge Drejka.
The men took to the stage. Crump introduced Sharpton, who called him a friend.
"I thought when we lost Johnnie Cochran, in my lifetime we’d never see the likes of that again," Sharpton told the crowd. "But I’ve been all over the country and Benjamin Crump is the Johnnie Cochran of our generation."
As he spoke, rows and rows of people shooed away the heat with handheld paper fans.
Some fans bore the image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But not all of them. Some instead carried a picture of Crump.
Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.