The Wickersham Commission and William Monroe Trotter

By Vernon, John | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1999 | Go to article overview

The Wickersham Commission and William Monroe Trotter


Vernon, John, Negro History Bulletin


Many of us have an image of the 1920s as a rollicking, hold-on-tight, anything-goes age with frenetic flappers, towering sports figures, and urban mobsters with colorful names. It was also a time when alcohol manufacture, sale, and transportation for purposes of consumption were made illegal by the 18th Amendment and its enforcing legislation, the Volstead Act. These anti-alcohol laws grew out of a long-standing temperance movement, which picked up momentum during the Progressive Era but ultimately proved too difficult to enforce. Many otherwise law-abiding American citizens regarded prohibition as an unnecessary incursion into their personal rights (even President Warren Harding privately served liquor). The amendment eventually was repealed in 1933, but not before giving rise to widespread outbreaks of crime and hooliganism. Bribery, graft, and acts of violence against competing mobs were commonplace methods for gangsters who competed with one another to control the highly profitable if wholly illicit liquor trade in big cities. When they did, they amassed huge fortunes as a result of bootlegging, and their notoriety lent them a sort of unsavory glamor.

The document reproduced here, although addressed to Herbert Hoover, was referred to George M. Wickersham, the chairman of the National Committee on Law Observance and Enforcement, later popularly known as the Wickersham Commission. President Hoover, in response to public demand and his own convictions about temperance, appointed Wickersham in May 1929 to head a 11-person group to identify causes of criminal activity in the United States and to recommend changes in federal jurisprudence procedures. By 1929 it was evident that enforcement of the 18th Amendment was ineffective. Wickersham's group was charged with studying the larger problems of law enforcement, with particular reference to prohibition.

Thousands of private citizens wrote to offer information and advice, often forwarding their own favorite reasons for the lawlessness. They blamed cigarette smoking, the alleged negative influence of foreign-born residents, the breakdown of the nuclear family, the perceived decay of traditional religious and moral values, judicial double standards (poor versus rich), and an ineffective penal system (viewed as too harsh or too soft) among many other interesting and societal-revealing causal factors.

One citizen who informed Commissioner Wickersham about what he considered an especially important contributor to unlawful acts of violence was William Monroe Trotter (1872-1934). Wickersham and the other commission members--all of whom were white--probably had never heard of this indignant black citizen who for many years had been agitating for absolute equality between blacks and whites at a time when Jim Crow reigned supreme as the law of the land. Although the crusading publisher-editor of the Boston Guardian (1901) preceded the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s by almost half a century in his nonviolent protest tactics and rejection of racial inferiority, he has come down to later generations as a relatively obscure figure.

Many scholars continue to accept the notion that the lives of African Americans rarely have the degree of scholarly interest that they indeed warrant. Ironically, this holds true even in the case of Trotter, the man for whom both the first integrated public school in Boston and the William Monroe Trotter Institute at the University of Massachusetts Boston Center were named. His home in Boston has been designated a National Historical Landmark. Why he should have been neglected for so long as an object for serious historical study appears somewhat puzzling. Trotter's career spanned more than three decades and placed him in touch with prominent leaders of both races. Leaders as diverse in their philosophies as Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope and Marcus Garvey, and Woodrow Wilson and Warren Harding regarded the brilliant--if often prickly--journalist with wary respect, for he was the sort of person who neither asked for nor gave any quarter when engaged in debate. …

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