As America confronts old demons after George Floyd’s death, a 1770 slaying is recalled
Like George Floyd, he was black, in his mid-40s, and died at the hands of a white man. And like Floyd, he may have helped touch off a revolution.
Many in the Black Lives Matter movement are invoking Crispus Attucks — an African American gunned down by a British soldier in the Boston Massacre of 1770 — as a symbol of entrenched white-on-black violence and oppression.
Attucks is widely seen as the first casualty of the American Revolution, and 250 years after his death, he’s become a rallying figure for a nation battling old demons.
“Crispus Attucks was a black man and the first person killed during the Boston Massacre that started the Revolutionary War,” said Jeff Nadeau, 45, a healthcare industry worker in Los Angeles County.
“George Floyd was another black man killed who started this revolution. History does repeat itself,” he said.
To be sure, the circumstances of each man’s death are starkly different. Attucks, 47, died in a confrontation with occupying forces. Floyd, 46, died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis after a white police officer pressed his knee into the handcuffed man’s neck, ignoring cries that he couldn’t breathe.
George Floyd’s ancestors lost land, education and their lives to racist U.S. policies
But in memes on social media and in commentary on the airwaves, they’ve become inextricably linked by those who see troubling parallels in the 2½ centuries that separate them. Poignantly, if somewhat improbably, “Crispus Attucks” was trending on Twitter this week.
Attucks, of African and Native American descent, and four other men died on March 5, 1770, after British soldiers opened fire on an unruly crowd. The victims were posthumously hailed as heroes, with thousands turning out for their funeral procession and their burial together, and their deaths stoked anti-British sentiment throughout the colonies, leading a few years later to the war for independence from Britain.
Two years ago, a grass-roots movement was launched to push Boston’s leaders to honor Attucks by renaming the city’s famed Faneuil Hall — which bears the name of a wealthy 18th century slave owner — in Attucks’ honor. That campaign continues.
Attucks’ story has been retold at critical moments in the nation’s history.
In the 1850s, black abolitionists in Boston marked each massacre anniversary as Crispus Attucks Day, using the memory of his sacrifice to mobilize support for efforts to end slavery.
“They presented Attucks as the first martyr of the Revolution who died fighting for liberty. The image resonated powerfully in a nation that placed millions of African Americans in bondage despite its stated ideal of freedom,” reads a new exhibit by Revolutionary Spaces, “Reflecting Attucks,” in Boston’s Old State House.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned Attucks in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait,” noting that “the first American to shed blood in the revolution that freed his country from British oppression was a black seaman.”
Adding to the injustice of Attucks’ death, founding father John Adams — the future president was a lawyer at the time — publicly defended the British soldier who shot him while privately praising Attucks’ courage.
“Our country was literally founded on the death of a black man,” tweeted Chris Echols, 37, an insurance company employee from Glendale, Ariz.
Miranda Adekoje, a Boston writer who’s working on a new play about Attucks, cautions that his indigenous roots — and the parallel suffering of Native peoples today — shouldn’t be ignored.
“He represented two groups that were incredibly brutalized and still are,” she said. “The message of this play will resonate even stronger than it would have had George Floyd’s death not happened. These themes are centuries old.”
Three Georgia men charged with murder in the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery are due in court to find out whether the case will go to trial.
And Adekoje points to one way history isn’t repeating itself in 2020:
“The revolution that began with Crispus Attucks’ murder had no real regard for the lives of African and indigenous people,” she said. “The revolution that has begun as a result of George Floyd’s murder is for the sole purpose of making America inhabitable for all people.”
Start your day right
Sign up for Essential California for the L.A. Times biggest news, features and recommendations in your inbox six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.