The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The ‘unapologetic blackness’ of William Monroe Trotter

Aram Goudsouzian is the author of “Down to the Crossroads: Civil Rights, Black Power, and the Meredith March Against Fear” and “The Men and the Moment: The Election of 1968 and the Rise of Partisan Politics in America.”

We are not here as wards. We are not here as dependents. We are here as full-fledged American citizens.” With those words, William Monroe Trotter scolded President Woodrow Wilson, face to face, in the White House.

It was November 1914, and a delegation of black leaders was objecting to Wilson’s policy of segregating federal employees. As the president offered weak evasions — pleading that segregation could soothe racial tensions and that such problems took time to solve — Trotter seethed. Then he erupted. He accused Wilson of betraying the black independents who had supported his election. “Please leave me out,” ordered Wilson. “You spoiled the whole cause for which you came.” The president was accustomed to black deference, not righteous audacity.

But as Kerri Greenidge illustrates in her intriguing new biography, “Black Radical,” William Monroe Trotter cared little about the approval of powerful whites. Rather, he emerged as a significant force in black politics because he spoke to the gut concerns of ordinary African Americans. In the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington appealed to white paternalism, while W.E.B. Du Bois and the NAACP lobbied for civil rights with calculation. Trotter, by contrast, championed an “unapologetic blackness.”

“Black Radical” frames Trotter as a hero for today’s generation of black activists: exuding pride in black excellence, raging at white supremacy, distrusting of white liberals, uncompromising in his ideals. Greenidge writes: “As Trotter’s life of activism indicates, only black people can define what racial justice looks like, and they can only do this through constant agitation for the political, economic, and civil rights enshrined in the Constitution during Reconstruction, yet denied through violent resistance, antiblack politics, and general white apathy.”

As a young man, Trotter was brilliant, ambitious, third in his class at Harvard, a successful real estate broker, a member of Boston’s black elite. His light skin and green eyes sometimes subjected him to taunts of “white n-----.” His father, James, a lieutenant during the Civil War in the famed 55th Massachusetts Regiment, was one of Boston’s prominent “negrowumps,” the black leaders who rejected blind adherence to the Republican Party. In this same tradition, the younger Trotter envisioned a mass movement of black people demanding their civil rights.

In 1901 Trotter founded the Boston Guardian, a weekly newspaper that advocated independent, “race first” politics. Its standing soared during controversial incidents, such as in 1906, when Republican President Theodore Roosevelt dishonorably discharged 167 black soldiers after a shooting incident in Brownsville, Tex., despite a lack of good evidence. The Guardian’s “Remember Brownsville” campaign, which included investigative forays and provocative headlines, stoked black outrage against the party of Lincoln.

The Guardian also blasted the Tuskegee Machine, casting it as the mouthpiece of white Southern conservatives. During the Boston Riot of 1903, Trotter was arrested and jailed for shouting hostile questions at Booker T. Washington. This populist style won the loyalty of the “genteel poor,” a black working class that demanded leaders be responsive to their concerns.

Greenidge reclaims the radical history of Boston’s “colored” community, which included not only Southern migrants but also immigrants from Cape Verde, Canada and the Caribbean. She further illustrates Trotter’s impact on city politics, explaining his strategic alliances with Democratic politicians such as John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald.

But “Black Radical” is most valuable for charting Trotter’s extraordinary political journey. In 1905, he and Du Bois co-founded the Niagara Movement, which declared an aggressive civil rights agenda. He directed a host of organizations that promoted independent black politics. He led raucous demonstrations against the epic 1915 film “Birth of a Nation,” which lampooned black people and cast the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. He crusaded for a federal anti-lynching bill. After World War I, he called an internationalist Race Congress that demanded civil rights on a global scale, and he testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He allied with fellow black radical internationalists, such as Hubert Harrison and Cyril Briggs. And he challenged the president of the United States, face to face.

Greenidge writes with a sledgehammer, pounding on her arguments about Trotter’s radical independence and populist appeal. He might not have possessed the stature of Washington or Du Bois, but the Northern, urban, black working class gravitated toward Trotter’s adamant cry for genuine democracy.

“Black Radical” could have probed deeper, however, on the personality behind the politics. Trotter’s life was checkered by feuds. Every time he quarreled with other black activists, he smelled betrayal. The Boston Guardian declined in quality after his break with co-editor George Forbes. The Niagara Movement fizzled after he bickered with fellow members and then left. He refused to compromise with moderates, crippling his ability to sustain any political organization. As Greenidge documents, Trotter’s stubborn militancy both alienated potential allies and enhanced his popular standing. But it is not entirely clear why Trotter was so perpetually prickly.

That radical purity exacted a personal cost, too. The expenses of the Guardian left him in poverty. When his wife, Deenie, died in 1918, he lost his key partner in politics and publishing. His political influence dwindled, and he grew sad. By 1934, when William Monroe Trotter walked the streets of Boston, sporting his Victorian suits and handlebar mustache, people called him “Old Mon,” a relic with a dying newspaper and a forgotten legacy. From the roof of his apartment building in Lower Roxbury, he beheld the city where he had once been a strident voice for racial justice. And then he jumped to his death.

The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter

By Kerri K. Greenidge

408 pp. $35