Before it became the subject of hours of national news coverage and the catalyst for
an international movement, the
shooting was just another sad crime story
overshadowed by the
In the days after Trayvon and George Zimmerman had their fatal Feb. 26 encounter, the death that would captivate and divide the nation was a blip on Central Florida's radar.
Then Trayvon's father reached out to lawyers in South Florida. And they called Benjamin Crump.
"I said, 'Y'all don't need me for this case,' " Crump recalled. He assumed Zimmerman's arrest was just a delayed formality. "They're going to arrest him. They've got to arrest him."
Crump took the case and called a news conference. The rest is history.
Just as he did years earlier in another teen's boot-camp death, Crump has become a central voice in the cries for justice and a key figure in a major controversy. As much as anyone, Crump enabled Trayvon's story
to move to the forefront of the national consciousness.
Those who have worked with Crump describe him as a detail-oriented, media-savvy attorney with a passion for civil-rights causes. A man who rose from humble beginnings to legal prominence, his experiences define him, colleagues say.
No 'justice' in prior case
"You kill a dog, you go to jail," Crump said. "You kill a little black boy, nothing happens."
The date was Oct. 12, 2007, and it wasn't Trayvon Martin's death Crump was talking about.
Rather, he was decrying the acquittal of seven guards and a nurse in the death of Martin Lee Anderson.
The guards were videotaped in January 2006 hitting and kicking Anderson, a 14-year-old inmate at the Bay County Boot Camp youth-detention center, while the nurse watched. Martin died, and the video recording, which Crump sued to have released, sparked national outcry.
Almost five years after the acquittals, the topic is still an emotional one for Crump, who says he'll never forget seeing an all-white jury come back in less than two hours of deliberations.
"I will go to my grave feeling that justice didn't happen for Martin Lee Anderson's family," he said.
It was during the Anderson case that Crump first attracted the attention of the
, who helped the attorney bring it to the national stage. Sharpton said it was quickly apparent that Crump was devoted to the cause and had the fortitude to follow through.
"A lot of lawyers know what to do but don't have the courage to do it," Sharpton told the Orlando Sentinel last week.
"He has the courage."
Anderson's family won more than $7 million in civil settlements. But Chuck Hobbs, then Florida general counsel for the
, says the day of the acquittals remains among the most disheartening of his career.
Despite the disappointment, Crump "was so calm and relaxed," Hobbs recalled, "and he was still firm in his belief that justice would be done."
The case gave Crump experience he would
apply to future causes. Crump learned, Sharpton said,
that in a civil-rights battle, "you cannot attack without being attacked."
Crump says he remains "petrified" by the possibility of the Trayvon saga ending similarly. The Anderson case taught him that, regardless of the circumstances, "you can't assume" legal victory.
"You have to work," said Crump, 42.
"You have to fight."
'Poorest guys in law school'
Crump met his law partner, Daryl Parks, when both were undergraduate students, and the two
grew closer when they enrolled at
's law school. But it was their past that drew them together.
"We looked around, and we came to the conclusion, 'Hey, man. We're the poorest guys in law school,' " Crump, who grew up in rural Lumberton, N.C., said with a laugh.
Crump credits his great-grandmother as his biggest influence, teaching him there was a world outside their small community. Outside his family, his hero was
, the attorney
who argued Brown v. the Board of Education and later became the first black Supreme Court justice. Crump said his school district integrated when he was in fifth grade.
Crump and his partner formed their firm, Parks & Crump, in 1996. They now operate a Tallahassee office with eight lawyers, focusing on wrongful death, malpractice, personal injury and civil rights.
"A lot of people look up to Ben and Daryl, a lot of black lawyers," said Natalie
, a prominent Central Florida lawyer who Crump brought on to the Martin case in its early stages.
Crump was a mentor to Jackson, she said, early in her legal career. When Jackson took her first high-profile client, she turned to Crump for support.
"I had never had any experience with the media," Jackson recalled. "I was overwhelmed. [Crump] coached me through everything I needed to know."
Those who know Crump stress his ability to use the media to expand an issue beyond the borders of a community, as he has done with the Trayvon Martin shooting.
"The media is more powerful, in a lot of regards, than what happens in that courtroom," Crump said. Without public attention, he said, "a lot of times [cases like Trayvon's] are swept under the rug."
A married Tallahassee resident raising two teenage cousins, Crump has seen his profile continue to rise along with that of his firm.
"Crump is the [
, they're the firm of this generation," said Sharpton, referring to the prominent black attorney who represented numerous high-profile clients, including singer Michael Jackson and football player
Among lawyers, "I see the same kind of respect" for Crump, Sharpton said, as he used to see for Cochran. "I see the same kind of attention."