He was privileged as one of the “Talented Tenth,” but a true ally to poor African-Americans. He was a newspaper editor and a Black Radical who alienated the full-range of the political spectrum, from Woodrow Wilson to Booker T. Washington to other Black Radicals. He believed the good was the enemy of the perfect but left a legacy that inspired the actions of activists of the Movement. He was William Monroe Trotter, and today we learn about him through his own words.
Raised in an upper middle-class family in Boston, Trotter attended Harvard University (where he was classmate of W.E.B. DuBois), and the first person of color to be awarded a Phi Beta Kappa key at Harvard. He initially struggled to find employment that came easily to his less-qualified, white classmates before finally entering into real estate sales and investment.
I realized that the democracy which I had enjoyed at dear old Harvard was not secure for Americans of Color because of their pigmentation. The conviction grew upon me that pursuit of business, money, civic or literary position was like building a house upon the sands. If race prejudice and persecution and public discrimination for more color was to spread-up from the South and result in a fixed caste of color. It would mean that however native and to the manner born, every colored American would be a civic outcast, forever alien in the public life. So I plunged in to contend for full equality in all things governmental, political, civil and judicial as far as race, creed, or color was concerned. (William Monroe Trotter Biographical Summary)
In 1895, Booker T. Washington gave a speech which outlined the basis of his “Atlanta Compromise,” which asserted that “Southern African Americans should not agitate for political rights (such as the right to vote and equal treatment under the law) as long as they were provided economic opportunities and basic rights of due process. Washington actively promoted the idea that African Americans, once they had proven themselves as productive members of society, would be granted full political rights.” (Trotter Wiki) Trotter vehemently disagreed and grew to despise Washington.
To what end will your vaulting ambition hurl itself? Does not the fear of future hate and execration, does not the sacred rights and hopes of a sufering race, in no wise move you? The colored people see and understand you; they know that you have marked their very freedom for destruction, and yet, they endure you almost without murmur! 0 times, 0 evil days, upon which we have fallen! (Rudwick, Elliott M. “Race Leadership Struggle: Background of the Boston Riot of 1903.” The Journal of Negro Education 31, no. 1 (1962): 16. doi:10.2307/2294533.)
In 1898, Trotter started his own mortgage and insurance company and was successful enough to invest in real estate. In 1901, he funded and co-founded The Boston Guardian. Trotter was the managing editor of the weekly newspaper and determined the editorial stance, which rejected the accommodationist polices of Washington and pushed for a more forceful, and often more confrontational, approach. He gained national notice (or notoriety) when he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for disturbing the peace at a Booker T. Washington speech in Boston in 1903. Given the animosity between Trotter and Washington, it is quite likely the arrest and “martyrdom” was anticipated. W.E.B. DuBois was visiting Trotter and staying at his home when Trotter was arrested, and was initially infuriated that Trotter had placed him in a difficult position. Although DuBois had recently been critical of Washington in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, he was not yet ready to take on a highly-visible leadership role in the struggle.
Trotter arose and asked Washington several loaded questions on education and voting: “In view of the fact that you are understood to be unwilling to insist upon the Negro having his every right (both civil and political) would it not be a calamity at this juncture to make you our leader? . . . Is the rope and the torch all the race is to get under your leadership?” (Rudwick, Elliott M. “Race Leadership Struggle: Background of the Boston Riot of 1903.” The Journal of Negro Education 31, no. 1 (1962): 16. doi:10.2307/2294533.)
Also: “Again you say: ‘Black men must distinguish between freedom that is forced and the freedom that is the result of struggle and self-sacrifice.’ Do you mean that the Negro should expect less from his freedom than the white man from his? (Harrison, William. “Phylon Profile IX: William Monroe Trotter-Fighter.” Phylon (1940-1956) 7, no. 3 (1946): 242. doi:10.2307/272144.)
In 1905, Washington was seeking to create an umbrella organization of African-American leaders, with him as leader. DuBois, who was invited to join the organization, declined and instead joined with Trotter in creating the Niagra Movement. Trotter and DuBois wrote the radical declaration of principles. Agitation was embraced.
Protest: We refuse to allow the impression to remain that the Negro-American assents to inferiority, is submissive under oppression and apologetic before insults. Through helplessness we may submit, but the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows, so long as America is unjust.
Agitation: Of the above grievances we do not hesitate to complain, and to complain loudly and insistently. To ignore, overlook, or apologize for these wrongs is to prove ourselves unworthy of freedom. Persistent manly agitation is the way to liberty, and toward this goal the Niagara Movement has started and asks the cooperation of all men of all races. (Niagara’s Declaration of Principles, 1905)
The alliance between Trotter and DuBois ended by 1907, largely because of Trotter’s unwillingness to compromise. The Niagra Movement also collapsed because of the internal divisions as well as external pressure by Washington, but it did serve as a precursor for the NAACP. Trotter, however, was never involved with the NAACP, because he was suspicious of the role of white money and leadership. Instead Trotter formed the National Equal Rights League (NERL), a group of, by, and for “colored people.” As the leader of NERL, Trotter supported the election of Woodrow Wilson, and in 1914 brought a petition with 20,000 signatures to President Wilson, demanding the end of segregation in Federal offices which Wilson had ordered. The conversation became a confrontation, and Trotter became “the first and only Black man thrown out of the Oval Office.”
…Wilson told the black delegation that the policy of segregation “had been enforced for the comfort and best interests of both races in order to overcome friction.” When President Wilson had concluded his remarks, Trotter said to the president, “Two years ago you were heralded as perhaps a second Lincoln” but this segregation policy would result in a monolithic black vote against your reelection in 1916. Wilson interrupted Trotter, telling the Negro spokesman that politics had no place in the discussion. Wilson accused Trotter of trying to use political blackmail to influence administration policy. The president said that it mattered little to him if he got any black votes in 1916. What was important to him was that “he was doing the right thing at the right time.”
Trotter continued to press the president to change the segregation policy. Witnesses later said it appeared that Trotter was “cross-examining” the president. Others noted that the exchange amounted to a “shouting match.” Finally Wilson halted the discussion. He told the delegation that he resented the tone of Trotter’s remarks, calling them “offensive.” Wilson said that he expected “those who professed to be Christians to come to him in a Christian spirit.” The president added, “Never before since I have been in office have I been addressed in such an insulting fashion.” Wilson then told the delegation that it would have to leave the Oval Office. And he added that if the National Independent Equal Rights League were ever asked to come to the White House to voice their opinions in the future, it could do so only if they chose another person to lead the delegation. “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came,” Wilson told Trotter as he was being escorted out of the Oval Office.
Trotter met with reporters on the White House lawn immediately after he was asked to leave the Oval Office. “What the president told us was entirely disappointing,” Trotter remarked. “His statement that segregation was intended to prevent racial friction is not supported by the facts. For 50 years Negro and white employees have worked together in the government departments in Washington. It was not until the present administration came in that segregation was drastically introduced.” The next day, news of the meeting made the front pages of the major American newspapers. (“Remembering William Monroe Trotter: The First and Only Black Man to Be Thrown out of the Oval Office.” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 46 (2004): 51. doi:10.2307/4133672.)
Although Trotter had continued opportunities for direct action, including agitation against the Boston showings of Birth of a Nation, his visibility declined except amongst a loyal few. He had alienated too many people with his insistence on his way as the only right way, and he lost readership at The Guardian. He had sold off his real estate investments to keep the paper going, and then the family home. His wife, a tireless activist and partner in her own right, died in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic. William Monroe left a dedication for her, for years after her death, on The Guardian’s editorial page that said:
To my fallen comrade, Geraldine L Trotter, My Loyal Wife, who is no more. To honoring her memory who helped me so loyally, faithfully, conscientiously, unselfishly, I shall devote my remaining days and to perpetuating The Guardian and the Equal Rights Cause and word for which she made such noble and total sacrifice, I dedicate the best that is in me till I die. ( William Monroe Trotter Biographical Summary)
In the 1920s, the emergence of Jim Crow, the rise of the Klan, and the lost of any Reconstruction rights was solidified, and Trotter’s strategy of working for change through leveraging the Black vote was no longer effective. Although he still spoke, fewer were listening, and he became increasingly embittered.
I feel that loyal race people should think of my constant, strenuous endeavors at loss & personal sacrifice for the rights of all of us & foster racial organization for equality … the Colored people are not going to have their civil rights and privileges in the North, or even in Mass. Unless those still left of the Old Guard advise them along the lines of Garrison, Phillipps, Sumner, Weld, Downing, Nell, Trotter and others… (William Monroe Trotter Biographical Summary)
William Monroe Trotter died in 1934, after falling from the roof of his apartment building. It is unknown to this day if his death was an accident or a suicide. Although his commitment to what would now be dubbed “purity” still creates controversy, his willingness to use direct action is his most valuable legacy. After his death, his estranged friend W.E.B. DuBois wrote:
But Trotter was not an organization man. He was a free lance; too intense and sturdy to loan himself to that compromise which is the basis of all real organization. […] Does this mean that Monroe Trotter’s life was a failure? Never. […] The ultimate object of his fighting was absolutely right, but he miscalculated the opposition. […] This does not mean that agitation does not pay; but it means that you cannot necessarily cash in quickly upon it. It means that sacrifice, even to blood and tears, must be given to this great fight; and not one but a thousand lives, like that of Monroe Trotter, is necessary to victory. (Life of Trotter)