“Black Radical” author Kerri K. Greenidge recalls that she was 7 years old when she first heard about the Black civil rights crusader and journalist William Monroe Trotter. Over the years, his name has faded. Her grandparents who resided in Arlington, Massachusetts, remembered Trotter with abiding admiration. Says Greenidge, now a professor at Tufts University: “More than anyone, I owe my grandparents a debt of gratitude for forcing me to search for Black stories in unexpected places and to value these stories as vital aspects of historical scholarship.” In 408 scintillating pages, Greenidge pays homage to the nearly forgotten Trotter.
Trotter was born into a middle-class family of Bostonians in 1872. His strict father was a Civil War veteran who achieved the rank of lieutenant. The elder James Monroe Trotter accumulated enough wealth to ensure a comfortable life for the family. He also wrote a book titled “Music and Some Highly Musical People” about American music derived from Black culture. The younger Trotter was one of the few Blacks attending Harvard University in the late 19th century. A Baptist, he promulgated teetotalism and encouraged Bible study. Popular on campus, Trotter could be seen making his way about on a bicycle — something of a novelty then. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa.
On leaving the halls of academia, Trotter ran smack into the cruel realities of racism. While less accomplished, White Harvard grads waltzed into lucrative and influential professions, Trotter experienced the pain of many avenues denied him. No matter how smart, capable and cultured he was, there was no way around the racism. Eventually he did find employment, but another path beckoned. In 1901, Trotter founded a weekly newspaper that would be a vehicle for the concerns and aspirations of the “colored” working class of Boston. He preferred the term “colored” because it was more inclusive and encompassed Black and Brown people everywhere, not just African Americans.
Trotter named his paper The Guardian. Its motto was “For every right, with all thy might.” Published from an office on Tremont Row, where famed abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison churned out “The Liberator,” Trotter intended The Guardian to become a great and respected “race paper.” Greenidge writes, “civil rights and racial politics lay at the heart of every paragraph and every editorial in The Guardian’s four short pages.” Passionate and often intransigent, Trotter clashed with Booker T. Washington. Trotter saw Washington as a “Benedict Arnold” who appeased the White power structure. By eschewing criticism of White supremacy, Washington and too many other people of color endured systemic denigration in exchange for some meager semblance of power and influence. Throughout his controversial life, Trotter would kowtow to nobody. Never did he deviate from his precept that only people of color themselves could find the authentic way to justice and liberation.
A prime example of Trotter’s frank, uncompromising approach is exemplified in his confrontation with President Woodrow Wilson. As a candidate in July 1912, Wilson met with Trotter and some members of the National Independent Political League, promising, “If elected to the Presidency I shall observe the law in its letter and spirit … I shall do so in the spirit of the Christian religion.” It was a flat-out lie. On ascending to the Oval Office, Wilson almost immediately imposed racist federal policies. Having encouraged Black votes for this man, Trotter was furious at the betrayal and demanded a meeting with the new president.
At that meeting with Wilson, there was no deferential pandering. Facing the president, the resolute Trotter stated, “We are not here as wards. We are not here as dependents.” Wilson took umbrage at Trotter’s outspokenness. Greenidge writes that “Wilson scolded Trotter like a plantation owner affronted.” With no intention of apologizing, Trotter asserted, “I am pleading for simple justice.”
Perhaps it came as no surprise to The Guardian’s editor that the first movie ever screened at the White House — during Wilson’s tenure — was “Birth of a Nation,” based on the Thomas Dixon novel “The Clansman.” The first major Hollywood blockbuster, it depicts the Ku Klux Klan saving the South and is a thoroughly racist film. It won Wilson’s enthusiastic approbation.
The book and film were unflinching propaganda for White supremacism. Dixon wrote “that the White man must and shall be supreme.” Of course, Trotter and others, Black and White, disagreed. When “Birth of a Nation” came to Boston, Trotter was in the forefront of protest. However, the outrage sparked by the film did not prevent it from being shown at the Tremont Theater starting on April 10, 1915. In terms of sheer cinematography and length — nearly four hours — nothing like it had been seen before. It had the unfortunate effect of nurturing the resurgance of the Klan throughout the country, even in New England. Another impact of the film, states Greenidge, was that Trotter’s protest campaign “set the stage for the increasingly transnational New Negro militancy of the 1917 National Race Congress, and the local fight against segregated state employment that this transnational militancy anticipated.”
This was the time of lynching. At the hands of malevolent White mobs, Black men, women and even children were subject to the most hideous violence. Hanging, mutilation and burning were widespread. In his effort to get a federal anti-lynching bill passed, Trotter told of the atrocity inflicted in Georgia on a pregnant Black woman named Mary Turner. Both Turner and her unborn child were violently killed. Greenidge writes: “Such rabid antiblack violence, Trotter insisted, was not anathema to American democracy, but a fundamental feature of it.” The bill never passed the Senate.
As time went on, Trotter despaired that the unified movement of people of color that he desired did not happen. He would endorse more militant and leftist politics, such as the African Blood Brotherhood, urging oppressed people and their communities to arm themselves against the murderous brutality that for so long had victimized them. He gave his life and fortune to a cause never abandoned. In deteriorating health and impoverished, he either fell or jumped from a building in Boston on April 7, 1934, the day he turned 62.
Greenidge has penned a rich work about an extraordinary man and his time that resonates with our nation and world today. It is a fitting and challenging tribute to William Monroe Trotter that deserves wide readership.
Read the full Jan. 29 - Feb. 4 issue.
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