William Monroe Trotter is one of the most unsung and notable graduates of Harvard University. From nonviolent sit-ins to film boycotts and activist journalism, Trotter’s pioneering social justice and advocacy strategies continue to inform and influence contemporary social justice activists.
Trotter was born into a well-to-do family and raised in Hyde Park, Massachusetts. He earned his graduate and postgraduate degrees at Harvard University and was the first man of color to become a ΦBK member there in 1895.
Seeing an increase in segregation in the North, he began to engage in a life of activism. In 1905, he joined W. E. B. Du Bois in founding the Niagara Movement—a forerunner of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also co-founded the Boston Guardian, a newspaper that gained prominence both inside and outside of Massachusetts.
In Boston, Trotter succeeded in shutting down a production of the play The Clansman in 1910. In 1915, Trotter tried to stop screenings of the movie The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan in favorable terms. In a highly publicized meeting with President Woodrow Wilson in 1914, Trotter protested Wilson’s introduction of segregation into the federal workplace. And in 1921, in an alliance with Roman Catholics, he got a revival screening of The Birth of a Nation banned.
While Trotter’s campaigns against the proliferation of the entrenched racism of his day were often unsuccessful, they illustrate the resiliency and relentlessness with which he approached his work. His untimely death in 1934 cut short a life dedicated to ameliorating racial injustice in the United States.
The William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at Harvard is hosting a two-day event on April 7-8 at the Harvard Kennedy School. This event, which will mark the 150th anniversary of Trotter’s birth, will bring together students, academics, activists, and artists in what the Collaborative describes as “a global classroom for citizen activism” in a hybrid event convening. The Collaborative is led by faculty director Cornell William Brooks, a past president of the NAACP, who is now Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and a professor of the practice of public leadership and social justice. For more information about the Collaborative, visit its website at trotter.hks.harvard.edu/.