First, I want to say that Birth of a Movement is a good documentary on Netflix and is the inspiration behind this post.
We are familiar with the name W.E.B. Dubois but I do not hear much concerning William Monroe Trotter and that’s a shame. While I do not agree with his dissension with Booker T. Washington (I admire Washington, obviously), I do admire Monroe’s drive to stop a movement that ultimately led to a resurgence and second wave of one of the most terrorist groups in America, The Klu, Klux, Klan.
William Monroe Trotter was an African American newspaper editor and real estate businessman in Boston, Massachusetts born on April 7, 1872, in Chillicothe, Ohio. Raised in Hyde Park, Boston, his father, James, was a writer and former civil rights lieutenant who worked in real estate. Trotter excelled in academics growing up, becoming his predominantly-white high school’s class president and attending Harvard University in the early 1890s. He was a friend of W.E.B. Dubois who also attended Harvard alongside him. The friends graduated in 1895, the same year that Booker T. Washington delivers the famous 1895 Atlanta Compromise Speech.
Trotter was an early activist for Black Civil rights and produced similar Civil Rights results in 1915 as that of the 1960s marches. He was an early opponent of Booker T. Washington (sigh… I just think Booker had a point but whatever), and in 1901 founded the Boston Guardian, an independent African-American newspaper, as a vehicle to express that opposition.
In 1905, Trotter joins W.E.B. DuBois in founding the Niagara Movement, the precursor to the NAACP. However, Trotter did not agree entirely with the organization. The NAACP’s top officers were white men and it only made sense to Trotter that the National Association for the Advancement of “Colored” People is run and operated by “Colored” people. It was not. The NAACP was founded by Jews and ran by the same. For this, Trotter decided to part with the organization. Instead, he founded his own organization called The National Equal Rights League. He also co-founded the Boston Literary and Historical Association (the oldest nationwide human rights organization founded in Syracuse, New York in 1864 dedicated to the liberation of black people in the United States) with colleague George Forbes and established The Guardian newspaper. The publication pushed for Black equality.
Trotters most famous acts of Civil Rights is his stand against David Wark Griffith’s, landmark film, The Birth of a Nation, a racists play turned movie by author Thomas Dixon. Originally called The Clansmen, the book turned play became a massive bestseller. It also had the endorsement of The White House as it was screened at the house and praised as “History as Lightening” (Wilson).
Trotter began a campaign against Dixon’s play turned film when it opened in Boston in 1910, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. While his protests succeeded in closing the production, The Clansmen changed its name to The Birth of a Nation and in April 1915 was scheduled to open in Boston. Trotter rushed back to lead protests against the film. In April, the Tremont Theatre was denying African American’s admission, to include Trotter. When blacks refused to leave the lobby, plainclothes police moved in, sparking a fight. Trotter and ten others were arrested; other protests took place both inside and outside the theater. It resulted in a mini-riot. Trotter, united with other African-American community members, could not get the film banned in Boston. Interestingly enough, Booker T. Washington dies later this year, November of 1915 in Tuskegee Alabama.
The KKK had a revival for a decade after 1915, especially in industrial cities and the Midwest. In 1919, Trotter appeared at the Paris Peace Conference in an unsuccessful effort to have the organization outlaw racial discrimination. But, in 1921, Trotter was successful in shutting down new screenings of The Birth of a Nation in Boston. He also led demonstrations against events, plays, and films that glorified The Ku Klux Klan. William Monroe Trotter died on April 7, 1934, in Boston.
Far as finances is concerned, it’s still unknown exactly how much The Birth of a Nation grossed, but it did very well in sales. D.W. Griffith is still recognized as the man who pioneered modern cinematic techniques with his use of advanced camera and narrative techniques. Griffith is also one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and popularized the use of the close-up shot and his skill is still taught in film school. Meanwhile, in the 1920s, his film The Birth of a Nation continued to spark a resurgence of the Klu Klux Klan, which produced a second wave in Atlanta, Georgia, inspired by the film. This terrorist organization would go on to terrorize millions of blacks over the years.