Nov. 12, 1914
Civil rights leader William Monroe Trotter led a delegation that confronted President Woodrow Wilson.
Raised in Hyde Park, Massachusetts, Trotter had more education than the president. He had graduate and postgraduate degrees from Harvard University, where he became the first Black member of Phi Beta Kappa.
“New Englanders liked to talk as if ‘the Negro problem’ afflicted only the South,” The New Yorker wrote of him, “but Trotter looked around his beloved Boston and saw segregation in the city’s churches, gyms, and hospitals. This ‘fixed caste of color’ meant that ‘every colored American would be a civic outcast, forever alien in public life,’ he wrote.”
In 1901, he started The Guardian with the motto: “For every right, with all thy might.” The newspaper called itself “an organ which is to voice intelligently the needs and aspirations” of Black Americans.”
Both he and his wife, Deenie, published The Guardian each Saturday, only missing two issues: “The Trotters had no children and did not want any; The Guardian was their child.”
In their pages, Trotter leveled vicious attacks against Booker T. Washington and his accommodation policies, calling him “the Great Traitor.” When Trotter began to question Washington at a gathering of 2,000, a fight broke out, which became known as “the Boston riot,” and he was arrested, spending 30 days in jail. The wealth his family once enjoyed turned to poverty because of the money he sunk into his newspaper.
“It has cost me considerable money, but I could not keep out of it,” he wrote. “I can now feel that I am doing my duty and trying to show the light to those in darkness and keep them from at least being duped into helping in their own enslavement.”
He turned his attention to political candidates he felt would support African Americans and began backing Wilson, whom he met and shook hands with in 1912 “with great cordiality.”
A year later, he and Ida B. Wells and other civil rights leaders expressed dismay over the reinstitution of Jim Crow and even shared a chart that showed which federal offices had begun separating workers by race.
In 1914, Trotter and other Black leaders appeared at the White House with 20,000 signatures, demanding an end to Jim Crow in federal offices. The leaders told Wilson they felt betrayed because they had supported him in the election, and he had since reinstituted segregation in the federal government that included separate toilets and dismissed high-level Black appointees.
“Only two years ago you were heralded as perhaps the second Lincoln,” Trotter said, “and now the Afro-American leaders who supported you are hounded as false leaders and traitors to their race.”
He reminded the president — who had been busy championing his “New Freedom” program to restore fair-labor practices — that he had promised to aid Black Americans in “advancing the interest of their race in the United States. … Have you a ‘New Freedom’ for white Americans and a new slavery for your Afro-American fellow citizens? God forbid!”
Wilson responded that “segregation is not humiliating but a benefit” and that he had put the practice back in place because of friction between Black and white clerks. Trotter challenged this claim, calling Jim Crow humiliating to Black workers.
Wilson stuck to his guns, telling Trotter that if he and other Black Americans think “you are being humiliated, you will believe it.” The exchange lasted 45 minutes, and the president challenged Trotter’s “tone” as offensive: “You have spoiled the whole cause for which you came.”
The civil rights leader responded, “I am pleading for simple justice. If my tone has seemed so contentious, why has my tone been misunderstood?”
The argument landed on the front page of The New York Times. During World War I, the State Department refused to give Trotter a passport to Paris. To get around the restriction, he took a job as a cook on a freighter to France, and when he began reporting on the plight of Black soldiers, French newspapers shared his reporting, and he spoke there about discrimination against African Americans.
When Trotter returned home, he was welcomed by 2,000 supporters. He unsuccessfully championed a section added to Wilson’s 14 Points for peace that would say, “The elimination of civil, political, and judicial distinctions based on race or color in all nations for the new era of freedom everywhere.”
Trotter helped found the Niagara Movement, a forerunner of the NAACP. The civil rights organization adopted his proposal to address segregated transportation as a grievance, but the group rejected his proposal to make lynching a federal crime.
He championed cases the NAACP was slower to pursue, including Jane Bosfield, a Black woman was told she could only work for a Massachusetts hospital if she ate separately from her white fellow workers.
When the racist movie, ‘The Birth of a Nation’, appeared on a screen, the national NAACP tried to raise money for a rival film to counter those lies, but Trotter believed in direct action. His protests succeeded in shutting down a play that was the basis for the movie, which depicted Klansmen as heroes. After failing to halt the debut of the film in Boston, he teamed up with Roman Catholics to get a revival showing canceled.
His tactics were later used by the modern civil rights movement “to integrate lunch counters, buses, schools, and other essential spaces,” The New Yorker wrote. And his mindset “incubated the politics of Malcolm X and of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.”
A multicultural center at the University of Michigan bears Trotter’s name, and his first home in Dorchester is now a National Historic Landmark. He made the list of the 100 Greatest African Americans.