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Issue #1876      July 10, 2019

First martyr of the American Revolution:

Former slave Crispus Attucks

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America – or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans. It is not a very pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty.”

The American Revolutionary War of 1776 led to the 13 British colonies that later became the United States gaining their independence from the world’s biggest and most powerful empire. Today, we celebrate the launch of that revolution as Independence Day. The Boston Massacre, in which British soldiers shot and killed several people in 1770, is recorded as one of the incidents that helped accelerate the colonists’ drive to revolt. What is not often taught in schools, or popularised in mainstream culture, is the fact that a Black man was the first to die for the independence of this nation. That man was Crispus Attucks – the first person killed in the American Revolution.

Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, to an enslaved Black man named Prince Yonger and a Native American woman named Nancy Attucks. Crispus escaped from enslavement around 1750 and eventually became a sailor, spending much of his life at sea or working the docks along the Atlantic seaboard.

Tensions between the US colonies and the British Empire had been mounting for some time. The colonists tired of being used as simply producers of raw materials, a captive market for the goods of Britain’s factories, and a pawn in imperialist rivalries with Britain and Spain. Significant sections of the rising capitalist and landowner classes in British North America wanted to escape the control of the monarchy.

The colonists had begun organising under the slogan “no taxation without representation,” believing that, as they were not directly represented in British Parliament, any laws it passed affecting the colonies (such as the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act) were illegal and unjust.

Boston, a shipping town, was the centre of resistance to taxation by the British Parliament. On March 5, 1770, in Boston, a young boy complained that a British officer had failed to pay his barber bill. As tensions escalated, a small crowd of townspeople, which included Crispus, began tossing snowballs and rocks at the British soldiers stationed there. Gunshots rang out, wounding six civilians and killing another five. Attucks was the first to fall.

His death went unpunished. John Adams, who would eventually become the second US president, defended the British soldiers in court. During the trial, Adams claimed that the troops were acting in self-defence. The future US president called the protestors “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars,” and claimed Attucks was the instigator. His argument would carry the day in court, as none of the soldiers were convicted of murder. Two received guilty verdicts on a charge of manslaughter, but their only punishment was receiving a branding on their thumbs.

The verdict emboldened the resistance to British rule. John Adams would go on to write that the “foundation of American independence was laid” on March 5, 1770. Silversmith Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre titled the “Bloody Massacre Perpetrated in Kings Street in Boston,” would become what historians eventually called “the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history.”

Revere’s work, still famous today, left out Attucks, though. Adding him back into the visual history of the Boston Massacre fell to WL Champney almost a century later, in 1856. Two years later, in an 1858 commemoration of the Boston Massacre, American abolitionist Wendell Phillips stated:

“I place this Crispus Attucks in the forefront ranks of the men that dared. When we talk of courage, he rises with his dark face, in his clothes of the labourer, his head uncovered, his arm raised above him defying bayonets; and when the proper symbols are placed around the base of the statue of Washington, one corner will be filled by the coloured man defying the British muskets.”

The American Revolution that Attucks helped launch would be described by VI Lenin as “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars.” It encouraged the French Revolution and inspired revolutionaries throughout the Western hemisphere to overthrow Spanish colonialism and establish republics.

But it would take a “second American revolution” – the Civil War – to break the US slaveholder class, so many of whose members had been among the leaders of the 1776 fight. And even that second revolution didn’t create anything approaching equal rights for former slaves. Sharecropping, Jim Crow, economic oppression, and political disenfranchisement served as a superstructure for a racist dictatorship in the South that kept workers of all races divided.

The enslavement of Black people was one of the key building blocks of US capitalism and the world economy of today. But when thinking of the contribution that Black people have made to the advance of democracy in this nation, and the world, the picture must be expanded to include a variety of roles. Attucks’ death was the opening act in a struggle that led to the US gaining independence at a time when Black people were seen as property and eventually only three-fifths of a human being.

Attucks escaped slavery and attempted to make a space for himself in a land that was hostile to his very existence as a free person. This is still the case for many Black people, and other people of colour, in the country today. His story can be seen as symbolic of the history of the United States – a history filled with contradictions, victories, losses, oppression, and the constant struggle for progress. American novelist and activist James Baldwin once said, the history of a people is never a pretty one. This is true, but it is our truth, and by acknowledging the entire picture – the troubles and triumphs – we can perhaps build a future of true democracy for all peoples.

People’s World

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