William Monroe Trotter: An Uncompromising Agitator

Leaders of the Niagara Movement. Public Domain. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Progressive era reform journalist and sociopolitical agitator William Monroe Trotter was an integral player in African-American's early fight for civil rights in United States’ society.

James Weldon Johnson once described Trotter as “an able man, zealous almost to the point of fanaticism, an implacable foe of every form and degree of race discrimination” that “lacked capacity to weld his followers into a form that would give them any considerable group effectiveness.”

Trotter's work, as a publisher of a newspaper, his opposition to federal segregation and even his opposition to other African-American leaders such as Booker T. Washington exposed the need for social change in the United States.


  • First African-American to earn a Phi Beta Kappa key
  • Graduated magna cum laude from Harvard University in 1895 with a degree in international banking. He received a master's degree in 1896.
  • Founding publisher of the Boston Guardian
  • Established the Niagara Movement with W.E.B. Du Bois


  • Born: April 7, 1873, in Ohio. 
  • Father: James Monroe Trotter, served in the 55th Regiment of the Civil War and was appointed Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia by President Grover Cleveland
  • Mother: Virginia Isaacs Trotter, great-granddaughter of Mary Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson
  • Spouse: Geraldine Louise Pindell, active member of the Women's Era Club and temperance movement
  • Death: April 7, 1934


Newspaper Editor and Publisher:

In 1901, Trotter and his friend, George W. Forbes, established the weekly news publication, Boston Guardian. Like many other publishers of African-American newspapers, Trotter and Forbes used their publication as a forum to not only expose racism and oppression, but to develop a voice for African-Americans throughout the United States.

From its earliest printing, the Guardian was considered “the outstanding Negro newspaper devoted to political agitation.” The newspaper was important to fighting against lynching, disenfranchisement of African-Americans in the South, injustices occurring throughout the United States and segregation. In particular, Trotter used the Guardian to actively protest the following:

  • Booker T. Washington's philosophy of accommodation.
  • Campaigned against Thomas Dixon's play, The Clansman in 1905.
  • Segregation in the workplaces of the federal government.
  • Picketed Birth of a Nation in 1915.

W.E.B. Du Bois attested to the influence and effectiveness of the Guardian by writing, “The Guardian was bitter, satirical, and personal; but it was earnest, and it published facts. It attracted wide attention among colored people; it circulated among them all over the country; it was quoted and discussed. I did not wholly agree with the Guardian, and indeed only a few Negroes did, but nearly all read it and were influenced by it."


Organizing for Racial Progress:

Establishing organizations that would uplift African-Americans was also a lifelong ambition. In addition to publishing the Guardian, Trotter founded the following organizations:

  • Boston Literacy and Historical Association (1901): working with men such as Du Bois and Oswald Garrison Villard, this organization focused on assembling local African-Americans in Boston for social and political protest.
  • Niagara Movement (1905): founded with Du Bois, this organization aggressively petitioned for the civil rights of African-Americans. The organization published the newspaper Voice of the Negro. The efforts of the Niagara Movement led to the formation of the NAACP.

Opposition to Booker T. Washington:

When Trotter began publishing his newspaper, Booker T. Washington was the preeminent African-American leader in the United States. Washington, the founder and president of Tuskegee Institute, believed that African-Americans should not be fighting for immediate racial equality. Instead, Washington argued that African-Americans should be educated in industrial trades, be economically self-sufficient and then, fight for equality.

This philosophy was in direct opposition to Trotter, who argued that African-Americans should be fighting for social and racial equality.

Trotter’s disagreement with Washington came to a head in July of 1903. Washington was speaking at a mass meeting at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Boston. Trotter and others arrived and disrupted the meeting by hissing and heckling throughout Washington’s speech. Trotter asked Washington a question, “Again you say: ‘Black men must distinguish freedom that is forced and the freedom that is the result of struggle and self-sacrifice.’ Do you mean that the Negro should expect less from his freedom than the white man from his?” For Trotter’s disruptive behavior, he was fined fifty dollars and imprisoned for thirty days.

Protesting Federal Segregation:

Throughout his career, Trotter spoke vocally about federal segregation. In 1906, Trotter voiced his disagreement with Theodore Roosevelt's decision to discharge several companies of the 25th United States Infantry. Trotter argued that the soldiers-all African-American--were discharged based on evidence that was questionable.

Trotter later led a protest against Woodrow Wilson's decision to not desegregate employment in the federal government.