The basketball hero know as the Big O introduced the American Revolutionary martyr Crispus Attucks to a young boy in 1964. He also gave him his first look at segregation.
On March 5, 1770, British soldiers shot into a mob of seamen and ropemakers who had been taunting them with snowballs and sticks. The altercation, which would become known as the Boston Massacre, grew out of a labor dispute over jobs and forced conscription into the British navy. The soldiers killed five of the men and wounded six others. The first to die was a mixed-race man of African and Native American descent named Crispus Attucks, who took two musket balls to the chest. The dispute pitted founders John and Sam Adams, who were cousins, against each other. John Adams, serving as a lawyer for the crown, argued that the soldiers, on trial for murder, had been attacked by a “a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jack tarrs” and that Attucks was the leader of “the dreadful carnage.” Sam Adams argued in a pamphlet that the soldiers were fixing for a fight: “They went down…armed with muskets and bayonets fixed, presuming they were clothed with as much authority by the law of the land as the posse comitatus of the country with the high sheriff at their head.” The soldiers got off, but Attucks and the others became the first martyrs of the American Revolution and were buried together in as heroes in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground.
Attucks became an American hero, especially among abolitionists and Native and African Americans, but white Americans have not always known who he was. Or at least, I didn’t, growing up as I did in a small, mostly white Indiana town. But when I was in 9th grade, in 1964, our basketball team played the 9th grade team at Crispus Attucks High School in Indianapolis. Attucks was the alma mater of Oscar Robertson, who led his school to back-to-back state championships in 1955 and ’56, winning a record 45 games in a row and going undefeated in ’56. Our team walked in awe past Robertson’s shoes, which had been bronzed and sat in a glass case next to the championship trophies and under a life-size photo of his team. Robertson would go on to become the national College Player of the Year, an Olympic gold medalist, a 12-time NBA All Star, and the only NBA player to ever average a triple-double (double figures in points, rebounds and assists) for a whole year. That evening the Crispus Attucks captain outscored our entire team and I was introduced to segregation, incredible accomplishment, and through the name Crispus Attucks to a part of American history of which I had been ignorant.