The new Marvel series “Luke Cage” is more than just a superhero tale. It is a love letter to Harlem and African-American culture. From Jackie Robinson to Biggie Smalls, the series drops many names from black history. But no name is raised more than that of Crispus Attucks, the man for whom Cottonmouth’s fortress is named.
“Crispus Attucks was a free black man, the first black man to die for what became America,” Luke Cage explains to a young mugger in the show’s second episode. “He could have acted scared when the Brits raised their guns, but he stepped up. He paid for his life, but he started something.”
Attucks was more than just the first black casualty; he is often cited as the first man to die in the entire American Revolution. Attucks was one of five men who died in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770. The incident was the boiling point after months and months of tension between colonists and British troops following King George III’s heavy taxes.
Attucks had been working at the time as a merchant seaman and answered Samuel Adams’ call to protest against unfair taxation. Attucks is believed to be one of the people on the front lines of the crowd that day, throwing snowballs and heckling British soldiers. Eventually, one of the soldiers opened fire, killing Attucks and four other men.
The soldiers were defended in court by future President John Adams, who argued that the soldiers were acting in self-defense from the mob and at most were guilty of manslaughter. The jury agreed, and six of the eight soldiers were acquitted. The other two were found guilty of manslaughter for firing directly into the crowd after being provoked, and had their thumbs branded with the letter “M.”
But while the soldiers won at trial, they lost in the court of public opinion. The Sons of Liberty, led by Paul Revere, used the Boston Massacre as a major propaganda tool to further turn the public against the British. This moment and the Boston Tea Party are often cited as the major events that sparked the American Revolution.
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But Crispus Attucks himself wouldn’t become an African-American icon for nearly another century. In the years leading up to the Civil War, abolitionist William Cooper Nell brought new attention to Attucks’ death, holding him up as a black man who fought for the rights that America was founded on, and which now were denied to countless slaves. Nell petitioned local authorities in Boston to hold celebrations commemorating Attucks’ sacrifice, and in 1888, a memorial honoring Attucks and the others who died in the Massacre was erected in 1888.
It’s fitting for a show about a bulletproof black man to place the first African-American to die for his country on a high pedestal. Today, many African-Americans are taking bullets not from redcoats, but police blues. While the Crispus Attucks memorial in Harlem is fictional, “Luke Cage” creator Cheo Hodari Coker has said Attucks was vital to what he wanted to convey to viewers.
“I wanted to talk about the first person to die for a revolution and what that meant, and what he sacrificed,” Coker told TV Guide. “We used Crispus Attucks for that because half of these kids haven’t even heard of Crispus Attucks. It’s really the power of music, and of entertainment, of film and television. You get to tell stories and history that people have not really thought about in a long time.”