Benjamin Crump leaned back onto the lectern, clutching the microphone – the moment punctuated by his lack of words and a silence that spoke to his deeply-rooted emotion.
A chorus of "That's alright" sprang from the crowd. Crump, who represented the family of Trayvon Martin in the 2013 case, State of Florida v George Zimmerman, lifted his microphone, head slightly bowed. This time he had the words.
"If we do not stand up for our children, nobody will," Crump said.
Friday night at Temple of Church of God in Christ bore a semblance to a night with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights movement. During that period, the church had been a meeting place for African Americans to not only fellowship and worship God, but to hear activists deliver fervent messages delivered to mobilize and galvanize the masses to demand racial equality.
This time, it was Crump issuing the call to action.
"The question is, 'Are we going to answer the bell?'," Crump said. "When no one else is watching, will you be there to help our children?"
Temple COGIC, at 672 South Lauderdale St., kicked off its first "Conference on Family" with the keynote address from Crump, who is known for taking on cases with civil rights implications. None have been more high profile than the one involving the fatal shooting of the unarmed 17-year-old Travon Martin, who was walking back from a near-by convenient store when was killed by Zimmeran, a volunteer neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman was acquitted.
Crump entitled his message "The measure of a man," influenced by this quote from Dr. King: "the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Candid and upfront, political correctness was not a hindrance to the Florida State University graduate. He asserted that Stand Your Ground Laws were not created to protect African Americans.
"Stand Your Ground was a solution looking for a problem," he said. "There is nothing wrong with self-defense. However, Stand Your Ground says if you have an altercation with someone, just shoot them, and when you shoot them, make sure you they're dead."
Crump told the crowd that African-American children, especially boys, were being targeted as criminals and devalued in America. His visit to Memphis follows just a few weeks after Michael Dunn avoided a murder conviction for the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Florida.
Davis was sitting in a vehicle with friends in a public parking lot when Dunn demanded the boys turn down their music. After refusing to do so, Dunn returned to his car, retrieved his pistol and – in self-defense he claimed – fired a barrage of shots into the vehicle, killing Davis. Prosecutors sought to charge Dunn with first-degree murder, but the jury could not reach a consensus – resulting in a mistrial on that charge. The jury did convict him of three counts of attempted murder
"The message our country is sending out is causing our children to question whether they're valued as an American citizen," Crump said. "The greatest investment we can make is to invest in our children."
Crump also took time to debunk the rhetoric of black-on-black crime as a tactic to excuse racial acts of violence.
"Do you think it hurts any less to a mother or father if the trigger was pulled by someone who was black or white? It doesn't matter," he said.
Crump's call to action was for African Americans to set the example for their children and get involved in civic engagement.
"Take your child to register to vote when they turn 18," he said. "We have to show our children that we love them by our actions. From jury duty to attending rallies, we have to show our children how to get involved."
Tequila Stephens, mother of two, said she was more than motivated by Crump's words. She is ready to mobilize and act for her children.
"To constantly see our black children dying, I am tired of it," she said. "I am ready to fight for mine and defend our own children."
Tarik Sugarmon, a candidate for Juvenile Court Judge, said the message from Crump was one he hopes to carry to the Juvenile Court courtroom.
"We have too many of our young people taken out of our communities and out of our families, and they are not getting a fair chance by the justice system," Sugarmon said. "I want to give our children a shot when they come to me."
As the place where Dr. King left his legacy, Crump believes that Memphis plays a specific role in the political and social security of African-American children.
"I think being here is huge for a multitude of reasons," he said. "Dr. King left fighting for the Poor People's Campaign, and that was significant because he left us showing that we needed to fight for 'the least of ye' and not just provide lip service."