Civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, who won fame representing the families of George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and other victims of racial and police violence, is ready to usher in the next generation of social justice lawyers with a center named for him at a Florida law school.
The Benjamin L. Crump Center for Social Justice will open next year at the St. Thomas University College of Law in Miami Gardens with an initial donation of $1 million from Truist Financial Corp. Law school officials said they plan to encourage students to take on social justice work.
Crump, who was once a personal injury lawyer, rose to prominence as a voice for racial justice when he represented the family of Trayvon Martin, whom a neighborhood watch captain fatally shot in 2012.
He then took on the case of the family of Michael Brown, whom a police officer shot and killed near St. Louis in 2014. He continued to represent families whose loved ones had been killed by police. He has won financial settlements in about 200 police brutality cases and pushed cities to ban so-called no-knock warrants, in which police serve warrants at homes without warning.
"Our country went through a national reckoning in the spring and summer of 2020," said David. A. Armstrong, the president of St. Thomas University. "Ben Crump was at the center of that as the living civil rights attorney icon here in our country."
Terrence Floyd, 42, the brother of George Floyd, whose killing by a Minneapolis police officer last year prompted protests across the country, has said Crump's role with his family went beyond a typical attorney-client relationship. Floyd referred to Crump as "'Unc,' like he was one of my uncles."
The center will support a program for law students interested in civil rights and social justice, offering need-based financial aid, a speakers series and pro bono service placements for new lawyers, school officials said.
"Lawyers can be the social engineers," Crump said in a statement Thursday. "This Center will serve as a pipeline for historically marginalized students to get their law degrees and give back to society, following the legacy of my personal hero, Thurgood Marshall."
Crump's friendship with Tamara F. Lawson, the law school's dean, who wrote the book "Mainstreaming Civil Rights in the Law School Curriculum," meant the Florida campus was a natural site for the center.
The law school's racial diversity also was a draw, school officials said. Black students were 7.57 percent of all incoming law students in the U.S. in 2019, according to the American Bar Association. At St. Thomas, 8.3 percent of students last year were Black and 64.9 percent were Latino, according to a report by PublicLegal, a research project founded by the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.
While the law school encourages all students to take on social justice work, special efforts will focus on marginalized students who can bring more diversity to the legal profession, Armstrong said.
Crump said he hopes the center will pave the way for students looking for new opportunities in the field of law.
"My mother was a hotel maid who cleaned the rooms for the likes of many people who may be seated in this auditorium," Crump said Thursday at the new center that bears his name. "And I just remember her and my grandmother, these two Black women who believed with everything in their heart that the American dream was for their children, too.
"We need a whole army of warriors to go out into the community to give a voice to those who have no voice, to say things in the world that are not being said, to take on challenges that others are afraid of," he said.