Black History Month: William Trotter
Last night, PBS premiered the documentary Birth of a Movement, based on the book The Birth of a Movement: How Birth of a Nation Ignited the Battle for Civil Rights, by Dick Lehr. Both chronicle the very public battle between activist and newspaper editor (The Boston Guardian) William Monroe Trotter, and film pioneer D.W. Griffith (The Birth of a Nation).
Trotter came from a well-to-do family, his father James Trotter being the first Black man to earn lieutenant rank in the 55th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, during the Civil War. James later became the first Black man in Boston employed with the U.S. Postal Service. And appointed as Recorder of Deeds for Washington, D.C. by President Grover Cleveland. Trotter’s mother Virginia Isaacs, was the great granddaughter of Elizabeth Hemings, mother of Sally Hemings (Monticello, Thomas Jefferson).
William Trotter grew up in the predominantly white area of Hyde Park, where he graduated high school and went on to attend Harvard University, becoming the first Black man to graduate Phi Beta Kappa at the school. In 1895 he graduated with his bachelor’s – magna cum laude, and in 1896 with his master’s degree.
With fellow Harvard intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, Trotter founded The Niagara Movement, precursor to the NAACP of which he and DuBois were also co-founders. He then went on to found the National Equal Rights League, taking issue with the involvement and influence of the white NAACP founders.
In 1901, Trotter and George Forbes founded the Boston Guardian, an extension of the Boston Literary and Historical Association. Known for editorials against Booker T. Washington and his accommodationist ideology, Trotter began a major campaign and eventually shut down the Boston stage production of Thomas Dixon’s novel The Clansman. Five years later, in 1915, Trotter took up an even greater protest against D.W. Griffith’s movie The Birth of a Nation – an adaptation of Dixon’s novel. Despite highly publicized and sometimes violent protests, attempts to have the movie banned in Boston failed. But Trotter was successful preventing revival screenings in later years.
Check your local PBS listings for additional broadcasts of Birth of a Movement. Watch clips and get more information about the film, at pbs.org/independentlens.
feature image – The ARTery