Civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump remembers being bused to a predominantly white school in Lumberton, North Carolina, in 1979.
Crump and his white classmates played with each other and were cordial in class. Things were very different during lunch hour, however, when segregation became obvious.
Most of the African American students came from poor families, so they had to eat from the free lunch line, Crump said. Meanwhile, the white children with $100 weekly allowances had the privilege of eating from the a la carte line. It was during those school days he realized he wanted to confront racial injustice.
“I was going to be like Thurgood Marshall and fight to make it better for people who lived in my community and people who look like me,” Crump said.
Crump’s work in the criminal justice field began in the early 1990s, and today he is known for taking on high-profile, officer-involved shootings like Michael Brown Jr.’s in Ferguson in 2014.
During the Ferguson uprisings, Crump said young black protesters were fearless when it came to standing up for their constitutional rights. And it was their courage that prompted Crump to pen his first book “Open Season: Legalized Genocide of Colored People.”
Crump spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson about how the criminal justice system is designed to subjugate people of color and ways he hopes his latest book of essays will assist in fighting against all forms of racism.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
Andrea Henderson: Let’s go back to your time in Ferguson. What do you think that you learned the most about policing and the criminal justice system while you were here?
Benjamin Crump: The most compelling thing that came out of Ferguson, other than the tragic killing of Michael Brown Jr., was the Department of Justice report on how Ferguson was this cesspool of racism and corruption, by inflicting financial obligations on the majority black township of Ferguson. The City of Ferguson used ways to make them live almost under a caste system. They always had to figure out a way to give the city government money or to be fined double or put in jail. I mean by just ridiculous things like having parked cars or jaywalking. So, it came out that this form of government was making sure that black people were being told legally every day that: “You are a second-class citizen, and you are not equal with the white police department that is policing you. We protect this area for everybody else, but we police you all [African Americans] in Ferguson.”
Henderson: In your book, you discuss legal cases that reveal discrimination in almost every system. Can you explain what you mean about legalized genocide?
Crump: With the book, I endeavor to make sure young lambs and communities of color are well armed to protest the school-to-prison pipeline, racist Jim Crow laws like Stand Your Ground, voter suppression and environmental racism that would find young children living in South Central Los Angeles has a third of the lung capacity as children living in Santa Monica, California. In California, it was documented that you had black women and Hispanic women being coerced into having forced sterilizations. And in Tennessee, you have judges who are handing out sentences to black men and they tell them, “We would take 10 years off your 12-year sentence if you would agree to sterilization.” So, we’re talking about genocide literally and figuratively that is being promulgated by the law, the lawmakers and the law enforcers.
Henderson: While reading the book I noticed you pointed out some cases that pushed legislation forward for the civil rights of African Americans, but what about those cases that were not won — which could have been a pivotal moment in history early on — what do those cases say about the value of black and brown lives?
Crump: What it says is that the law that is supposed to be the last refuge against injustice is many times that actual instrument that promulgates the injustice. I wrote this book in many ways as an extension of what the great Paul Robeson did in 1951. W.E.B. Du Bois and other black leaders went to the United Nations in Paris and said they charge genocide against the government for the killing of Negroes in America. They based this on the daily killings, lynchings and raping of black people in America in the 1940s.
And almost 70 years later, I put forth the same arguments that the government is either complicit with or responsible for creating a genocidal situation in America. Especially when you look at the Supreme Court rulings on these issues that always concludes with black and brown people getting the least of justice and the most of injustice. Whether you talk about health care disparities, the access to capital issues, the education inequality issues, the courts keep finding creative ways to intellectually justify the killings over and over again. And it creates in the minds of people of color that you are not going to get justice.
Henderson: One chapter that really stood out to me was the voter-suppression section. We are coming up on another election, and some of those same suppressive practices you discussed could be used in the next election. What steps should people take now so systems won’t suppress their votes?
Crump: If they want to try to safeguard people’s votes in our community, then they have to have the lawyers, the preachers and the civil rights organizations all come together and formulate a plan, because there’s no question in my mind they are going to try to suppress the vote. We’ve got to be proactive instead of reactive. It is very fundamental that we challenge the laws, like in the state of Florida. And so when we talk about something as important as an election that is going to control the future for our children, then we have to be willing to fight for our children, because if we don’t do it, then we can’t expect anybody else to do it for us.
Henderson: But what if you have lost hope?
Crump: You have to go back and visualize what it is you’re fighting for. I think about if I lose hope and give up, then what I’m really doing is giving up on children’s futures, and if I believe black lives matter, then I’ve got to show it. I challenge America and those who recite the preamble to the Declaration of Independence to act like you believe it that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Well, America that means black and brown people, too.
Henderson: The book ends on a positive note with tips to the reader about steps to end racism or combat racism. You offer up a number of ways, but what are one or two of those ways that you believe may be the most effective?
Crump: Certainly, I think it is within us to make this work better and to give our children an equal opportunity at the American dream. We can’t let the enemies of equality win. We have to figure out ways we can use the law as a weapon for good, versus how they use the law as a weapon to disenfranchise and dehumanize American citizens. We all can commit to stay on our social media every day on a singular perspective to try to help move the pendulum forward as it relates to social justice. Also, admit that there is a problem, because people who try to act like there is no racism are in a way the biggest instigators of it becoming a reality. If we don’t admit it, then we would never come up with a solution, but if we talk about it and we start to act on it, then we have a chance of making a better world for our children.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.
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