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Wilson and Trotter’s Clash Offers Lessons for Us All

Ambassador Mark Green
African American postal clerks union meeting
Members of Local 148 of the National Federation of Post Office Clerks (NFPOC) pose for a photograph at a meeting November 15, 1932 in Washington, D.C.

William Monroe Trotter was born 150 years ago today.

While Monroe Trotter (as he was often called) may not be as broadly remembered as some of his contemporaries, such as W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, his legacy of activism for human rights at home and abroad is undeniable, as is the legacy of the man with whom he had the most public of clashes: President Woodrow Wilson. To be sure, the historic confrontation between Trotter and Wilson in the White House was not only illustrative of the president’s racist beliefs, but also of Trotter’s radical, unrelenting advocacy.

On November 12, 1914, Wilson defended his Cabinet members’ efforts to racially segregate their offices as “not humiliating but a benefit.” Even though Wilson was the most powerful man in America, Trotter couldn’t remain quiet. His strong rebuke “offended” Wilson and got him barred from visiting the White House ever again. 

Both Wilson and Trotter died disappointed, their lives’ work unfinished. And while they obviously had profound differences on the subject of racial equality, each in his own way recognized injustice in the world and worked to confront it. We believe that the complexities and contradictions in the relationship between these two under-appreciated historical figures can teach all of us something in our own complex and troubled society.   

Today democracy is still being challenged at home and abroad. But as Trotter and Wilson show us, we were never a perfect people; rather we’ve always been a fractious, flawed, and argumentative one that dreams big and has the courage to pursue those dreams through their ups and downs.

President Wilson’s segregationist policies had shocked Trotter and other prominent Black civil rights activists, who had cautiously supported Wilson’s Democratic ticket in the 1912 election. Wilson’s complicity in the expanded segregation in the federal workforce reflected his personal racist beliefs and reinforced the rising tide of segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South—exemplified by the influence of the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite his racist policies at home, paradoxically the advancement of human rights and democracy formed the fundamental essence of President Wilson’s foreign policy. In announcing America’s entry into World War I, he spoke of the need to make the world “safe for democracy.” He was one of the principal architects of the League of Nations, predecessor to the United Nations, and his famous “Fourteen Points” toward the end of the war promoted the rights of colonial and minority populations to “autonomous development” and “government by consent.”

Despite the inconsistency and mixed legacy of his own policies toward smaller nations, Wilson was nonetheless far out front of other world leaders at the time. Although Wilson’s allies in the United Kingdom and France politely cheered his Fourteen Points, their representatives at the Paris Peace Conference insisted on carving up the losing empires and redistributing their colonial holdings to the winners with little regard to the wishes of their peoples. In too many cases, they succeeded. The Conference did however produce the Covenant of the League of Nations, which in addition to establishing the first world body charged with preventing aggressive war also bound members to extend political equality to all their citizens, regardless of race or creed.

William Monroe Trotter, meanwhile, had not been invited to the Paris Peace Conference and had even been denied a passport by the U.S. State Department to travel to France. Undeterred, an incognito Trotter got a job as a cook on a ship bound for France, but arrived just as the main negotiations were concluding. He was shut out from the official delegations, and missed the simultaneous Pan-African Congress. He then returned in July 1919 to an American nation convulsed by race riots raging in dozens of cities.

Despite these disappointments, Trotter never gave up his quest for racial equality, and spent his remaining years highlighting incidents of racial injustice and lobbying for anti-lynching bills in Congress. Just last month, President Biden signed into law a bill making lynching a federal hate crime, telling onlookers that the new law isn’t just about the past.” Trotter’s legacy continues through the work of the William Monroe Trotter Collaborative for Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School, a think-and-do tank leveraging the analytic capital of the Harvard community to train, equip, and convene practitioners of democracy for social justice campaigns and programs globally.

There’s much we can do today to further the best visions of our predecessors. Continuing the hard work of buttressing democracy and justice at home is foremost. Abroad, we cannot allow ourselves to sink into paralyzing despair as we watch brutal authoritarians seek more power and use violence against the innocent. President Wilson saw that a world safe for democracy was both a moral imperative and a core interest of the United States—that Americans will be more secure and prosperous in a world where democracy can flourish.         

William Monroe Trotter was born the son of a freed slave who fought for the Union in the Civil War. Trotter fought for freedom and justice in his own way, his story is an essential part of the American experience. The Wilson Center honors his legacy with an annual award in his name to symbolically reject Wilson’s legacy of racism and segregation by recognizing the contributions of those who have struggled fighting for equality have played in the formulation, implementation, and analysis of foreign policy and national security in the United States.  Trotter’s struggles, and those of his predecessors and descendants, remind us that injustice is not banished in a year, or a decade, or a lifetime. It’s a struggle that never ends, really, and one that we must all fight in our own way at home and around the world.

This piece was co-authored by Ambassador Mark Green, President and CEO of The Wilson Center, and Professor Cornell William Brooks, Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations and Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership and Social Justice at the Harvard Kennedy School.

About the Author

Ambassador Mark Green

Ambassador Mark Green

President, Director, & CEO, Wilson Center
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