Fighting For Equality

A new generation of Black activists invokes Attucks’s story to challenge white supremacy at the turn of the 20th century.

At the turn of the 20th century, white supremacists terrorized Blacks through lynching and expanded efforts to segregate them and deny them of their rights as American citizens. The child of abolitionists, activist William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934) invoked Crispus Attucks’s contributions to the nation’s founding to challenge whites who said Blacks were racially inferior and did not belong to the American story. Trotter inspired a new generation of African Americans to take a more confrontational approach in their fight for equality.


Photographer unknown

July 28, 1917
Reproduction courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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In the early part of the 20th century, tens of thousands of African Americans fled north to escape poor economic conditions and racist Jim Crow laws in what became known as the Great Migration. In the summer of 1917, the Aluminum Ore Company in East St. Louis hired hundreds of Black workers to replace striking whites, igniting racial tensions and violence against African Americans in May. Tensions mounted until July 1-2, as white residents launched an attack on the Black community, with little to no intercession from local authorities. White rioters killed dozens of Black people indiscriminately, and burned down Black residences leaving thousands homeless. In response, the NAACP called for a silent protest parade in New York City to protest the violence. On July 28, 1917, nearly 10,000 Black men, women and children paraded in silence down Fifth Avenue. Marching to a beat of a drum, the demonstrators held picket signs demanding an end to racial injustice.

Silent Parade in New York City Against the East St. Louis Riots

In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation was not discrimination and could continue as long as both groups were treated equally. This decision meant that state-level civil rights laws no longer offered African Americans any protection from segregation, discrimination, and disenfranchisement.

As federal civil rights deteriorated, Black Bostonians fought back. They created the Racial Protective League to fight against lynching and joined the Afro-American Council to mobilize Blacks across the country around racial violence and weakened civil rights. William Monroe Trotter founded the National Equal Rights League, which fought against segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching. Black Bostonians also joined W.E.B. DuBois (1868-1963) in the Niagara Movement, which revived the radical abolitionist spirit in a militant assault on Jim Crow legislation, lynching, and employment discrimination.

After the Niagara Movement’s collapse, many joined African Americans and white progressives in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). The National Equal Rights League lives on today in the form of the Boston Equal Rights League, which continues the Attucks Day tradition in Boston.


Monochrome poster
Reproduction courtesy of the Princeton University Poster Collection at the National Museum of American History

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During World War I, Black soldiers faced discrimination and segregation. When they returned from the war, they faced physical assaults and the Red Summer – a violent rebellion by white communities that denied accounts of Black bravery in Europe. Blacks responded by building institutions that remembered the heroism of Crispus Attucks. In Philadelphia, African Americans founded the Crispus Attucks Circle for War Relief to raise funds for Mercy Hospital, a Black-run hospital that treated Black soldiers denied equal access to medical care in white-run hospitals.

Crispus Attucks Circle Poster

In 1915, D.W. Griffith released his racist film The Birth of a Nation, which celebrated white Southern violence against formerly enslaved people at the end of the Civil War. The movie glorified the violent end of Reconstruction and led directly to the creation of the new Ku Klux Klan.

Trotter and the National Equal Rights League (NERL) organized local protests against the film in collaboration with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Trotter rallied support by invoking Crispus Attucks, since his presence at the Boston Massacre indicated that Black and Native people were present at the real “birth of the nation.” Despite the protests, Boston Mayor Michael Curley (1874-1958) allowed an uncensored version of the film to be shown at the Tremont Theater, where Trotter was arrested for protesting the film.

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Movie poster

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Birth of a Nation theatrical poster


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QUOTE BY WILLIAM MONROE TROTTER - Click here for text or larger image.
William Monroe Trotter

WILLIAM MONROE TROTTERPhotographer unknown

Date unknown

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Born in Ohio but raised in Boston’s Hyde Park neighborhood, William Monroe Trotter grew up in the heart of Boston’s abolitionist community. His family included former slaves and operatives on the Underground Railroad. William Cooper Nell was a family friend. Trotter grew up hearing stories about Crispus Attucks and other soldiers of color in the Revolution.

His father, James Monroe Trotter (1842-1892), was a prominent figure in the African American community. James Trotter was a Lieutenant of the 55th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War and served as Recorder of Deeds during the first administration of President Grover Cleveland (1837-1908). During the 1888 dedication of the Boston Massacre Monument, James Trotter was one of the distinguished speakers.

Towards the end of his life, Trotter pushed for the creation of an annual Crispus Attucks Day to ensure that the contributions of Black and Native people would not be forgotten during the public commemoration of the Boston Massacre. The first Attucks Day took place on March 5, 1934, two years after Massachusetts mandated an annual celebration of the Boston Massacre. The event became a powerful way for a new generation of activists to claim civil rights in the 20th century.