William Monroe Trotter was an early Twentieth Century radical for the cause of racial equality. Of course, what was radical in 1910 is accepted wisdom in 2015. Among his most memorable activities were his conflict with Woodrow Wilson over segregation in the federal departments of government, his agitation against the film “Birth of a Nation,” his organizing with The Niagara Movement (precursor to the NAACP) and his reporting from the Paris Peace Conference.
The main instrument for Trotter’s opinions was a newspaper that he founded in 1901 with George Forbes, called The Guardian. Publications created by and for African Americans were few, and played an important role in both informing and organizing the populace. This newspaper was founded primarily in response to the accommodationist politics of Booker T. Washington, and remained a thorn in the side of this famous educator throughout his career. Trotter, as editor, hounded Washington for his unwillingness to address lynching (Fox, p. 27), segregation (Fox, p. 34) and the loss of voting rights for southern African Americans (Fox, p. 36). When Washington’s influence was eclipsed by the rise of the NAACP, African Americans finally had a superior advocate for their rights.
If Trotter had limited his criticism to Washington, history would have vindicated his perspective. “But he had the strong man’s flaw: his bulldog tenacity could often become a prickly stubbornness…Compromise was not flexibility, but cowardice. Other men were either manly or unmanly, with him or against him. These qualities made him an admirable spokesman for the protest tradition, but hamstrung his personal relationships.” (Fox, pp. 64-5). Trotter was unable to accept that a movement is a body with many organs that function for the well-being of the entire organism. As a result, he eventually alienated almost all of the important radicals whose perspectives he shared. WEB Du Bois, Archibald Grimke, George Forbes, Clement Morgan and William Ferris, all were one-time allies who deserted Trotter. This is a sad and frustrating theme in the book: while African Americans are losing many rights, facing a resurgent KKK and enduring an increase in lynching, Trotter is wasting movement energy on infighting.
Stephen R. Fox, for his part, does a heroic job of reporting on this important but difficult figure. He does his best to balance the editor’s valuable work and his difficult personality. But even the most saintly biographer cannot avoid editorializing about such flagrant personality deficits, as when he parenthetically discusses the activist’s “larger problem of subordinating his ego sufficiently to admit mistakes and remain on good terms with anyone whom he did not control.” (Fox, p. 118). At least one cannot accuse Fox of hagiography.
Despite William Monroe Trotter’s personal flaws there is much to recommend him. He put forth the then unpopular (now accepted) idea that African American organizations should be run primarily by African Americans in order to empower them. Even the NAACP of his time had a majority of white men on its board. As a Harvard graduate from a well-off family, he had the opportunity for material comfort. But he “relinquished a comfortable, respectable existence” for a life that “brought him poverty…For over thirty years he genuinely put his people’s welfare above his own. And the tragedy of his life is that he died without much assurance that his dedication had been worth it.” (Fox, pp. 281-2).
Fox, Stephen R. The Guardian of Boston. William Monroe Trotter. New York: Atheneum, 1970.