Acclaimed Civil Rights Attorney Ben Crump Speaks Truth to Power at VU


Isabella Randle, Deputy Editor-In-Chief

Content warning: gun violence, police brutality, and suicide

Almost ten years ago, an unarmed Black seventeen year old in Sanford, Fla., was walking home from a convenience store, talking on his cellphone, when he was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch captain.  The groundless killing of Trayvon Martin and the failure to convict his killer sparked massive upheaval across the United States and renewed popular dedication towards securing racial justice in our country.

But how far has America come in the ten years since Trayvon Martin’s death?

On Monday, Nov. 15, nationally-renowned civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump addressed the Vanderbilt community to reflect on the past and present of racial injustice and police brutality in the United States.  Crump has represented the families of victims in several high-profile cases, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and Trayvon Martin.  The event, hosted by the Vanderbilt Speakers Committee, took place in the Student Life Center Ballroom and attracted more than 400 undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members.

Eric Holt, CEO of Chiminus Enterprises and Vanderbilt Law School graduate, moderated the conversation, which began with a question on Crump’s client selection.  Crump explained that he is a “disciple of Thurgood Marshall,” who decided to defend clients in cases that “shocked the conscience.”  Like Marshall, Crump chooses his clients–and in a way, he notes, they choose him as well–based on the case’s opportunity to make a larger impact on society.  While every individual is important, Crump hopes that the cases he chooses to litigate have an impact not just on the clients, but on the country as a whole.

Holt’s next question asked Crump to comment on the disparities between the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery trials, both of which are now underway.  Crump said that times such as these require us “to hold a mirror to America’s face [and] look at the hypocrisy.”  If Kyle Rittenhouse was a young Black man, Crump explained, he would not be experiencing the generosity of the justice system we have seen in his trial.  And, if the races of the actors involved in Ahmaud Arbery’s video-evidenced murder had been reversed–with a Black father and son killing a jogging white man in broad daylight–then “no judge, no jury, nobody in society would accept the ludicrous allegation of self-defense.”  Crump’s message was clear: we have two justice systems in the United States, one that operates for white America and one that operates for Black America. “We have to hold the mirror to America’s face any chance we get.  We’re better than this.  When we know the truth, we see the injustice, and we don’t do anything about it: we have to be better than that,” Crump said.

In describing the Kyle Rittenhouse trial specifically, Crump discussed the distinction between what is legal and what is right.  Many deeply unjust actions throughout history–from slavery and segregation in the United States to Hitler’s reign in Germany–have operated fully within the bounds of the law.  Rittenhouse shot three men with a semi-automatic rifle, killing two, at a Black Lives Matter protest in  Kenosha, Wis., in 2020.  He has pleaded not guilty, claiming he shot the men in self-defense.  If Rittenhouse is not held accountable by the courts, Crump implored those in attendance “to say, in unison, [just because it is legal] doesn’t make it right.”

The next question offered by Holt focused on the Jan. 6 Capitol riots.  To illustrate his response, Crump told the audience about an 11-year-old Black girl in Minnesota who was repeatedly bullied by the white students at her school, who even told her to take her own life.  “Where do they learn this racism?” Crump asked.  “Where do they learn this evil?”  Crump explained that the words and rhetoric coming from our political leaders matter.  During the Jan. 6th riots, Crump claimed, the public officials tasked with defending democracy “rolled out the red carpet” for the protesters and “told them to come on in.”  Crump said it was exactly like telling the high school bullies that their actions were acceptable.  He also contrasted the treatment of the Capitol rioters to that of the Black Lives Matter protesters, saying, “When you look at that video [from] January 6th, you don’t have to say it’s two justice systems in America.  You see it.”

Finally, the conversation shifted towards a discussion of the role of videos in the justice system.  “If a picture is worth a thousand words,” Crump said, “a video is worth a billion.”  Without the videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, Crump argued, the narrative would have been completely different; the men who killed them would not have been held accountable.  Crump also noted that, for every video we have of a hate crime, there are countless others that go undocumented, where the narrative justifies the death of the victim.  Much like the photographs taken at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, the videos of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery were a “game-changer” in mobilizing the public and fighting for justice and accountability.

The final portion of the event featured questions from the audience, which elicited passionate responses from Crump regarding the injustice of decades-long marijuana sentences for people of color (while the government shifts towards legalization for the benefit of white men) and his faith that he is doing what God intended for him to do, which nullifies the fear he might have from receiving death threats.

Crump’s appearance at Vanderbilt marks the first in-person event hosted by the Vanderbilt Speakers Committee in almost two years.  Rakesh Kathiresan, one of the co-chairs of the Vanderbilt Speakers Committee, told the Vanderbilt Political Review, “Having Ben Crump address Vanderbilt’s campus community is an honor and will hopefully inspire all of us to critically examine the inequities in our justice system.”

So, how far has America come in the ten years since Trayvon Martin’s death?

Not far enough, Crump explained.  There has not been meaningful police reform in almost sixty years.  Black men continue to make up a vastly disproportionate number of death row inmates.  Those who groundlessly murder people of color continue to go unpunished.  There is still much work to be done.

When asked what Vanderbilt students could be doing to support racial justice, Crump implored the audience to see injustice not as a minority problem, but rather as an American problem.  He urged those in attendance to be vocal and to never remain neutral in the face of injustice.  “My grandmother always taught me,” Crump said, “if you ever get a chance to speak truth to power, you do it.  You all are very powerful–you all don’t even know how powerful you are.  You are going to be the leaders of society in the very near future…It is up to you all to say, ‘We can do better, America.’”

Image Credit: Photo by Isabella Randle