Larry Bacow

Ben Crump slams Harvard prez over 13th Amendment comments: Beyond tone-deaf and insulting

Website_Attorney-Pohto_Ben-Crump-1-2Harvard president Larry Bacow is under fire for comments he made last week, in which he used the 13th Amendment, which freed slaves, to illustrate a new policy that allows alums at the Ivy League school to donate to any of its colleges.

Bacow apologized for his remarks, saying he understands they may have “unsettled” some who heard them.

“I regret that these comments caused offense,” Bacow said in an internal e-mail, the Boston Globe reported. “That certainly was not my intent.”

From the Globe report:

Bacow had suggested Tuesday that just as the 13th Amendment banned the ownership of African-Americans, Harvard’s individual schools could no longer “own” their specific wealthy graduates, according to those who attended the meeting at the Sanders Theater on campus.

But Bacow’s apology fell far short, at least as far as civil rights lawyer Ben Crump is concerned.

Crump, who’s got ties to Tallahassee, dressed down the Harvard official in a letter:

I must tell you how deeply disturbed I was to hear your recent comments that compared the university’s new policy granting well-heeled alums the “freedom” to donate money to the program of their choice to the Thirteenth Amendment granting freedom to African slaves.

While I agree with those who have called the comments tone deaf and insulting, I believe they go well beyond that. They reveal an utter lack of understanding — and caring — of the horrific toll of slavery and the continuing pain endured by people of color in America, more than 400 years after the start of slavery.

Crump this week was at the side of Brandt Jean at the trial of Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who was convicted of killing Ms. Jean’s 26-year-old son, Botham. Guyger was sentenced to 10 years behind bars for the shooting death of her neighbor.

In Florida, Crump represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the gray hoody-clad, unarmed black teenager who was shot dead by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford seven years ago.

Crump — an FSU grad — has gone on to national acclaim as a civil rights attorney, hosting his own television show and opening offices in numerous states.

Here’s the full text of Crump’s missive to the Harvard president:

“Dear President Bacow:

 I write to you as many things:

As a descendent of African slaves, who recently traveled to Ghana to stand at the “Door of No Return” and imagine my ancestors’ terror in being torn from their homes, transported across the ocean in agonizing conditions, and sold into a brutal life of slavery.  

As the son of a loving black woman who, as a single parent, spent her days working two jobs and scrubbing white people’s floors just to earn enough to keep food on the table for my siblings and me.

 As the first member of my family to graduate from college with an advanced degree.

As a lawyer who has represented the families of dozens of black men who were brutalized by police or slain for the “crime” of being black and presumed dangerous.

In light of all those roles, I must tell you how deeply disturbed I was to hear your recent comments that compared the university’s new policy granting well-heeled alums the “freedom” to donate money to the program of their choice to the Thirteenth Amendment granting freedom to African slaves. 

While I agree with those who have called the comments tone deaf and insulting, I believe they go well beyond that. They reveal an utter lack of understanding — and caring — of the horrific toll of slavery and the continuing pain endured by people of color in America, more than 400 years after the start of slavery.

When you acknowledged how your statement might have “unsettled” some people and then offered the thinnest of apologies (“I regret that these comments caused offense. That certainly was not my intent.”) it further underscored that you just don’t get the African American experience in America. 

Our country requires – and indeed a majority of its population has demanded – a national reckoning on American slavery, its complete history and those effects that 300-years in bondage visited upon African-Americans before and since the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment.

As your own website acknowledges, “Harvard was directly complicit in America’s system of racial bondage from the College’s earliest days in the 17th century…and continued to be indirectly involved through extensive financial and other ties to the slave south up to the time of emancipation.”

Harvard is among the most privileged places on earth. But privilege creates blind spots. Your comments on the 13th amendment demonstrate an inordinately large blind spot about the African American experience and the long shadow cast by institutions like Harvard that benefited greatly from slavery.

To quote the recent editorial written by The Harvard Crimson editorial staff: “If Bacow sincerely wishes to meaningfully understand why people found his comments distasteful and to learn from the experience we implore him to do more than just issue a lackluster email apologizing for his audience’s emotions.”

I urge you to take the advice of your students and make a meaningful change.”