11 February 2019

William Monroe Trotter: Rights Agitator Battles The Birth of a Nation

Intro Copy

I recently happened to tune into a fascinating documentary on PBS called Birth of a Movement. It tells the story of how an early civil rights activist led an effort to have D. W. Griffith's groundbreaking but disturbing pro-Ku Klux Klan film The Birth of a Nation banned. The man behind the movement was William Monroe Trotter, a successful African American real estate businessman and founder of The Guardian, a Boston newspaper that agitated for civil rights and harangued Booker T. Washington's accomodationist strategy of accepting segregation in the short term in exchange for the ability to prosper. Trotter and fellow Harvard graduate W. E. B. Du Bois founded the Niagara Movement, which took a more militant approach to demanding rights. While the organization fell apart because of disagreements between the two men, it is partially responsible for inspiring the foundation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In an episode illustrative of Trotter's strong stance on African American rights, he was thrown out of the White House when a meeting with Woodrow Wilson over the president's segregation of the federal work force got contentious. When Griffith's revisionist Reconstruction fantasy came to Boston in 1915, Trotter saw it as a dangerous piece of propaganda that could inspire violence, and he sought to have the movie banned. When that failed and Trotter was arrested for demanding tickets to the whites-only showings, for days thousands filled the streets outside the theater in protest of the film. This was 1915--half a century before such demonstrations would be used to great effect in the civil rights movement! Trotter is a great figure to examine during Black History Month, not only because of his many personal accomplishments and pioneering work on civil rights, but also as a way to highlight the varying philosophies and sometimes messy relationships among people fighting for the same cause. Another interesting discussion to be had involves the seeming conflict between Trotter's advocating for rights while trying to bury another man's art. Was it a justifiable case of squelching free speech? eLibrary is here to help teachers and students dig into Trotter's story and times in which he lived. Here is a partial list of Research Topics to start with: William Monroe Trotter D.W. Griffith Booker T. Washington W. E. B. Du Bois NAACP Reconstruction Era (U.S.) Ku Klux Klan Civil Rights Movement Jim Crow Laws