J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

The Boston Massacre’s Political Resonance

The Boston Massacre was a political event, of course.

It arose from conflicts between sources of authority—the imperial government and the town government, the British army and the local community, two groups of people feeling threatened and in the right.

In the immediate aftermath, the Whigs memorialized that event as part of that larger political campaign. Then in 1783, when independence had been won and the U.S. of A. was no longer part of internal British politics, Boston stopped commissioning orations every March.

The Massacre gained new political meaning in the mid-1800s as William Cooper Nell and other abolitionists used the figure of Crispus Attucks to argue that Americans of African descent had long been central to the nation and deserved equal rights.

As Mitch Kachun traces in First Martyr of Liberty, Attucks became an emblem of African-American patriotism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. When Boston erected a monument to the Massacre victims on the Common in 1889, black civil rights campaigners had been among its strongest proponents, and it was informally called “the Crispus Attucks monument.” (Not to be left out, Irish-Americans pointed to Patrick Carr and German-Americans to Christopher Seider as important martyrs.)

Other African-American heroes and models became prominent in the twentieth century, and Attucks’s name lost some of its resonance. In Boston, Melnea Cass revived the tradition of Crispus Attucks Day, shown in this photograph from 1970. His inspiration and her legacy will be discussed at Revolutionary Spaces’s ”Grief, Remembrance, Justice” online panel discussion on 5 March at 5:00 P.M.

Two months after that 1970 anniversary, National Guardsmen shot and killed four student protesters at Kent State University. Within days, Eric Hinderarker reports in Boston’s Massacre, someone published the poster shown above, paralleling the shooting on King Street and the shooting in Ohio. At almost the same time, Mississippi police officers killed two more students at Jackson State University.

Blacks were not the only Americans seeing their cause reflected in the Massacre of 1770. In Boston, the Bicentennial coincided with a federal court instituting busing to integrate schools. One of the more militant white groups resisting that order, R.O.A.R., attended the 1775 Massacre reenactment in force. When the muskets fired, as J. Anthony Lukas recounted here, scores of those protesters fell down, too—assuming the role of victims of an oppressive government.

The 1999 reenactment was the first I attended in a long time. It came a month after New York detectives had killed an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo, shooting 41 rounds at the unarmed man sitting on his front stoop. The current issue of the New Yorker, dated 8 March, showed a white policeman at a fairground shooting booth with a sign that read “41 Shots 10¢.” At the reenactment, I recall hearing a couple of spectators shout, “Forty-one shots for a dime!”

Last May after a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest on Boston Common, Boston police forcefully went after straggling groups of protesters, resulting in arrests, looting, and vandalism. There was slight damage to some historic sites and statuary. In subsequent days the governor called out the state militia, and Jake Sconyers caught a resonant image of a military vehicle parked in front of the Old State House on a spot where some of the crowd had stood on 5 March 1770.

As long as we have conflicting sources of authority, as long as groups feel threatened, rightly or wrongly—in other words, for the foreseeable future—the Massacre will continue to have contemporary political resonance.

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