William Monroe Trotter may not be a familiar name to those outside of Boston, but he was an early leader in the push for civil rights.
Trotter was born in Ohio in 1872 and his family moved to Boston seven years later. In 1901, Trotter founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African American newspaper that reflected his opposition to the racial injustices he had observed. He also worked with W.E.B. Du Bois and they jointly created the civil rights advocacy group the Niagara Movement.
Throughout his lifetime, Trotter challenged his peers and political officials alike to sharp debates and was uncompromising in his activism, which has in turn influenced the activists of today, experts told Crystal Haynes on Basic Black.
“The activism of today in many ways mirrors what we saw during Trotter’s time and under Trotter’s leadership,” said the Rev. Cornell Williams Brooks, adding that Trotter taught lessons of ferocity and intensity in activism, coupled with an intellectual and oppositional basis.
Brooks, a professor and director of The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for Public Leadership and a former president and CEO of the NAACP, described Trotter as “Black Twitter before there was Twitter.” He said the modern digital landscape has pushed activism to an unprecedented level, which was largely demonstrated following the murder of George Floyd when protesters in cities across the country took to the streets.
Brooks later added, “There’s a thread of continuity from Trotter to the 18 and 19-year-olds in the streets today. There’s been ebbs and flows, ups and downs, but that traditional activism has been unrelenting.”
Dr. Paula Austin, assistant professor of history and African American studies at Boston University, said she sees it in her students.
“Students are so hungry for the history. … They’re always really impressed by the sort of salience of the work that people were doing in our past and its relationship to our present movements,” Austin said. She noted the drama that happened in activist groups and how it helps students think about current day drama in a different way.
Trotter used several strategies such as boycotts, mass protest and petitions in his activism. He built coalitions with people with differing opinions, which helps demonstrate to students what true community organizing looks like.
Trotter’s impact on journalism as the editor and co-founder of the Boston Guardian is also informing the industry today, said Deborah Douglas, co-editor-in-chief of The Emancipator.
“We are taking a case directly from the Trotter handbook in terms of being uncompromising in our reimagining of what journalism can do for the public, not just for Black audiences, but for a larger audience,” said Douglas. She described Trotter as a trailblazer for direct action who fostered a hunger for deeper context, which The Emancipator is trying to provide.
Lalou Trotter Dammond, a member of the Trotter family, described her relative as an inspiration who was largely forgotten in the story of American history.
Dammond said, “I think some of that, you know, with radicals, often they’re not recognized until past their lifetimes, because progress is slow and there and radicals are not on the slow train.”
Watch Basic Black: William Monroe Trotter’s legacy and influence on a new generation
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