University News

Ben Crump makes the case for justice

In his MLK Lecture, the well-known civil rights attorney challenged his audience to make the law “an instrument for good.”

The 2023 MLK Lecture was delivered by attorney Ben Crump.
The 2023 MLK Lecture was delivered by attorney Ben Crump. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The man known as “Black America’s attorney general,” Ben Crump, addressed the audience of about 200 at Carolina’s 42nd annual MLK Jr. Lecture on Jan. 18 as if they were a jury, urging them to “follow the legal advice of Martin Luther King.”

But before revealing what that legal advice was, Crump walked his listeners in Hill Hall’s Moeser Auditorium back through history to 1963 when King wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in response to a public statement of concern about his actions from several white religious leaders.

“We have romanticized Martin Luther King so much, but we have to remember that at the time he was hated, he was vilified,” Crump said. “When you speak truth to power, you will not be loved by everybody.”

The MLK Lecture and Awards Ceremony is the largest event of the Week of Celebration, sponsored by the Office for Diversity and Inclusion and Student Life and Leadership. This year’s event included performances by Chapel Hill Poet Laureate Cortland Gilliam, members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity and Ebony Readers/Onyx Theatre. Previous keynote speakers include journalist Soledad O’Brien, Attorney General Loretta Lynch and author/radio host Michael Eric Dyson.

The audience heard welcoming remarks from Student Body President Taliajah Vann, Provost Chris Clemens and Leah Cox, vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer. Bianca Mack, associate dean for equity, admissions and student affairs at the School of Law, moderated a brief Q&A session following the lecture.

Netflix famous

Crump is best known for his advocacy for the families of victims of violence such as George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. The story of his life and work is told in the 2022 Netflix documentary “Civil,” directed by Nadia Hallgren, who also made the Michelle Obama documentary “Becoming.” Carolina senior Sage Staley and the trailer from “Civil” introduced Crump before his lecture.

Before beginning his speech, the Lumberton native thanked the committee that invited him for bringing him back to his home state and acknowledged several friends and family members in attendance. Crump also pointed out one of his North Carolina clients, the mother of Fred Cox, an 18-year-old Black man fatally shot by a sheriff’s deputy at a funeral in High Point in 2020.

Unjust laws

In his speech, Crump reminded the audience that King was in jail because he opposed the unjust laws that kept Southern society segregated. “Just laws should be uplifted and celebrated,” he said. “Unjust laws are manmade codes that contradict the morals and ethics of the most high.”

King cited several examples of unjust laws from historical and modern times in his Birmingham letter, making the point that everything Hitler did in Germany was legal. This observation brought Crump back to King’s legal advice, which he paraphrased more colorfully: “Just because it’s legal don’t make it right.”

Crump used the refrain as a rebuke against slavery, segregation, lynching and more recent cases like that of Taylor and Cox. “We need to make the law be an instrument for good. We cannot use the law as the weapon for evil.”

In the spirit of the event’s theme, “Finding Our Way Forward,” Crump concluded his remarks by reminding the audience that King and civil rights advocates were “helping America live up to its creed.”

“That’s a goal worth fighting for,” Crump said. “What we are really doing is helping America be America for all Americans. I rest my case.”

Awards presentations

The ceremony also included presentations of the following awards:

The2023 MLK UNC Student Scholarshipis awarded to current juniors who have demonstrated a commitment to improving the quality of life of Carolina’s campus and the greater community.

  • Kesan Ucheya, a junior from Delran, New Jersey, who is majoring in business administration and economics, won the first-place award of $2,000.
  • Rosa Elias, a junior from High Point, North Carolina, who is majoring in public policy and political science, won the runner-up award of $1,500.

TheHarvey Beech Scholarship honors the legacy of the first African American to graduate from Carolina’s School of Law. Scholarships of $1,500 are awarded undergraduate and graduate students.

  • Christopher Everett, a junior from Clayton, North Carolina, majoring in public policy, is deputy chief of staff in Undergraduate Student Government.
  • Aliya Griffith, now a doctoral student, was the first Black student to get a master’s degree in marine sciences at Carolina.
  • Jessica Holloway is a Chancellor’s Science Scholar and a junior from Burtonsville, Maryland, majoring in health policy and management and psychology.

2023 MLK Unsung Heroes

  • Bobby Kunstman, former director of Student Life and Leadership and adjunct professor in the School of Education, won the staff award.
  • Lisa Villamil, assistant professor in the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, won the faculty award.

Read The Well’s story about the MLK Unsung Heroes