Recovering William Monroe Trotter

Against the Current No. 210, January/February 2021

Derrick Morrison

WILLIAM MONROE TROTTER, a too little-known pioneer of the fight for civil rights in the South and civil equality in the North, is captured brilliantly in Kerri K. Greenidge’s book, Black Radical, The Life and Times of William Monroe Trotter (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2020).

Among the highlights of the trail Trotter blazed:

“On May 13, 1902, the [Boston] Guardian sponsored a rally at Faneuil Hall in support of the Fourteenth Amendment and congressional investigation of southern disfranchisement. The event called itself the Crumpacker Rally in honor of the Indiana Republican Edgar D. Crumpacker, who wanted Congress to reduce southern representation in those states where black citizens were denied the right to vote.

“Crumpacker, and fellow Pennsylvania Republican Marlin E. Olmsted, invoked Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment, which allowed Congress to reduce representation in those states that denied citizens’ rights. Olmsted introduced the resolution on January 3, 1901, less than three months after Republicans took control of the White House and both houses of Congress in the 1900 elections.”

If that section of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had escaped your attention — it did mine — it didn’t evade the laser-like focus of William Monroe Trotter.

“Crumpacker had worked on the resolution months before the presidential election, mainly in response to widespread white violence against black voters across the South. In 1898…five hundred white North Carolinians, angry at the predominantly black city of Wilmington for electing Republicans to the state legislature, stormed the town hall, seized control of the city council and attacked black people and their businesses in a violent political coup.

“Although the new, white Democratic Wilmington government clearly violated the Fourteenth Amendment, neither state nor Federal officials intervened, allowing the ‘Old North State’ to fall under Democratic control with little attention outside of the black community.” (72-73)

As the founder and editor of the Boston Guardian [hereafter referred to as the Guardian], Trotter reached out far and wide to build the rally. Crumpacker sent a letter of support, and “apologies for their absence” came “from Massachusetts governor Winthrop M. Crane” and “ex-governor George S. Boutwell….”

The rally “attracted overflowing crowds to Faneuil Hall” and “included a diverse cross section of the black public — colored people from Cambridge to New Bedford, attorneys as well as passionate janitors and bootblacks.” (77)

Roots of Black Studies

Professor Greenidge teaches at Tufts University, in the Consortium of Studies in Race, Colonialism, and Diaspora. While the book reflects tons of research, it’s also very readable, a real page-turner.

This book and many like it flow out of programs that study African-American history. And these programs came out of intense struggles. I was reminded of that after viewing Agents of Change, a film that appears sometimes on worldchannel.org, a Public Broadcasting System (PBS) channel.

That film spotlights the 1968 San Francisco State student strike and the armed occupation of the student union at Cornell University in 1969.

Black students initiated, organized and led both struggles, demanding the institution of some type of Black Studies program. These programs and departments, commonplace today, were forged in such battles at many college campuses across the country.

Let some of us remember, and many learn for the first time, about these events that extended U.S. civil democracy and pushed back social inequality. Professor Greenidge’s book is one of the fruits of those battles — let’s digest what it has to tell us.

William Monroe Trotter

Among the many battles against civil and social inequality in the first decades of the 20th century, the efforts of Trotter stand out. These include the movement for women’s suffrage, fought against a most gross civil inequality — the denial of the right of women to vote. The Socialist Party of America and the fledgling union movement of native-born and immigrant workers fought the plutocracy of the giant industrial companies over the right to organize and make a dent in social inequality by sharing a little in the wealth the workers produced.

Trotter not only confronted the civil inequality facing the people of color in the North, but utilized that zone of restricted civil democracy to fight the encroachment of Jim Crow in the South.

People of African descent in the North could exercise their constitutional rights as outlined in the 14th and 15th Amendments, the “Reconstruction amendments.” However, those rights were null and void in the South.

The imposition of Jim Crow meant not only the denial of the Reconstruction Amendments, but the overthrow of civil democracy, the disavowal of the rule of the U.S. Constitution.

Both Blacks and whites lived a constrained and repressive existence, the former serving as the scapegoat for the all the ills wracking society in the South.

The plutocrats, and those whom they subsidized, counseled accommodation and acceptance of the emerging status quo. Booker T. Washington, the founder and builder of Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, was a recipient of generous subsidies from Northern industrialists and bankers.

“As the infamous ‘Wizard of Tuskegee’ who used racial accommodation as a political tool, Booker T. Washington was … secretly subsidizing black newspapers across the country, and crushing those editors who refused to be bought.

“By 1900 … Wash­ington managed to subsidize nearly all of the black weeklies in the country….” (57-58)

Washington opposed the Crumpacker Bill. (74) But he couldn’t stop the Guardian’s effort because he didn’t control that paper.

Legacy of Trotter’s Father

The paper’s financial independence was due to the legacy left by William’s father, James Monroe Trotter. James and his two sisters, Fannie and Sally, were born out of the union between Letitia, a slave, and Richard Trotter, a slave master who owned several plantations in the Mississippi Valley.

An unusual planter, Richard provided the children with a classical education as opposed to laboring in the cotton fields.

Letitia, mindful of the vicissitudes of the plantation — meaning that any abrupt downturn could cause “Richard or his relatives” to “count their losses and sell off their slaves,” finally decided to flee with her three children, landing in a small town along the Ohio River in 1850. (9)

After the Civil War broke out and upon the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, young James signed up with the Massachusetts’ Fifty-Fifth Regiment (not to be confused with the Fifty-Fourth whose story is told in the film Glory). He became a sergeant and was eventually commissioned a lieutenant by the state’s governor.

After the war, James moved to Hyde Park, a Boston suburb. He was granted a government pension in 1870 and wrote a bestselling book on African American musical history in 1878. (12)

After the 1873 Depression, which was global in scope, property prices plummeted, enabling the lieutenant to amass some real estate. These holdings grew in value, providing financial security for William and his two sisters, Maude and Virginia Elizabeth (Bessie).

William graduated from Harvard, Maude attended Wellesley. When William launched the Guardian in 1901, his mother, Virginia, managed the real estate holdings.

The Growing Black Press

Greenidge notes that between the start of the Guardian in 1901 and the 1917 entry of the U.S. government into the Great War in Europe, “the number of black periodicals increased from less than 100 to over 288. And unlike the 1890s and early 1900s, these periodicals operated independently of Booker T. Washington and white political bosses [Washington died in 1915].

“Part of this was due to the mass migration of black southerners to the urban North and Midwest, and their rising literacy rates since Reconstruction.” (230)

The “most popular black newspaper in the country by the start of World War One” was the Chicago Defender, edited by Charles S. Abbott.

“Abbot was actually an early admirer of Trotter’s — when he began the Defender in 1905, he often wrote admiringly to Trotter about ‘the colored man’s rights.’ Trotter, in turn published excerpts from the Defender in the Guardian to point out the ‘rising colored man of the middle West.’

“By 1915, however, the Defender, with over 500,000 weekly readers, outsold Trotter in cities and towns across the country, including Boston. With just over 2,000 weekly subscribers, the Guardian would always cost more to produce than it earned….”

Unlike Trotter, Abbott “had no problem taking advertising revenue from products and companies that his racial politics found objectionable.” (231-2)

Niagara Movement and Brownsville

In July 1905, twenty-nine men from the Northeast and Middle Atlantic regions of the U.S. met at a hotel in Ontario, Canada and created “the first black-led civil rights organization of the century.”

Trotter’s ideas, Greenidge writes, “colored all aspects of the Niagara Movement’s Declaration of Principles. Written by Trotter and edited by [W.E.B.] Du Bois, these principles claimed political independence and equal suffrage as the basis for civil rights. ‘The race stands at the webbed crossroads where it must choose between cowardice and courage, apology and truth…or a conscientious stand for right with the faith that right will ultimately win over the costliness of liberty….’”

The document “urged black men to ‘protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights…the voice of protest of ten million Americans must never cease to assail the ears of their fellows so long as America is unjust.’” (122-3)

W.E.B. Du Bois was chosen as the “movement’s executive secretary.” While the organization was hobbled with personality clashes — some due in no small part to Trotter — its formation pointed up the need for a national response to the imposition of Jim Crow in the South.

Brownsville, Texas, became a flash point in 1906. The all-Black Twenty-Fifth Infantry “served with distinction in the Philippines, Cuba [Spanish-American War of 1898], and various frontier settlements across Texas, Arizona, and Nebraska. It was on the Western frontier that the men earned their nickname, ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’ and entered the ranks of African American popular culture through icons like West Point graduate Henry Ossian Flipper.”

Stationed at Fort Brown, the men were “shot at, harassed, and pistol-whipped” when they entered Brownsville. Maude’s father-in-law Theophilus Gould Steward, a chaplain with the Twenty-Fifth, “stated that white and Mexican citizens in Brownsville constantly complained that black soldiers refused to obey racial custom by getting off of the sidewalk when a white man passed by.” (140-1, 144)

In “the early morning hours of August 13, 1906…bullets rained down” on the town. It “ended with one death and the wounding of a police lieutenant….”

President Theo­dore Roosevelt “disparage[s] black soldiers as ‘particularly dependent’ upon white officers, lacking in ‘leadership capacity,’ and prone to panic under fire. ‘Here again I attributed the trouble to the superstition and fear of the darkey,’ he confided to a colleague, ‘[which is] natural to those but one generation removed from slavery and but a few generations removed from the wildest savagery.’” (141)

These remarks illustrate how the rise of Jim Crow went hand in hand with the elaboration of white supremacy theories. But Roosevelt, concerned about the Black vote in the midterm elections, waited until November to order a dishonorable discharge of the soldiers, which “meant loss of their Federal pensions and a lifetime ban from future Federal employment….” (142)

With the printed testimony of Chaplain Steward, the Guardian provided firsthand accounts. The articles were reprinted in the New York Tribune and in some of the Black press. In the course of a year, Steward and another writer took an “investigative trip” to Texas. Their accounts “provided national coverage, beyond the Guardian, of the Brownsville incident.”

Trotter “organized massive community rallies in Boston, D.C., Hartford, and New York City….” Those rallies also supported the efforts of Joseph B. Foraker, an Ohio Republican senator who sat on the Senate’s Military Affairs Committee. He introduced a resolution for an investigation by the committee as to “whether President Roosevelt had the authority to discharge the black soldiers.” (145, 146)

In January 1908, a bill known as the Tucker Act, was introduced to Congress to allow “the Twenty-Fifth Infantry’s officers to sue the Federal government for their discharge….” (158).

NAACP, NIPL and Woodrow Wilson

The Niagara Movement finally unraveled in 1908. Two years later a group of plutocratic reformers, concerned about the civil and social deterioration of conditions for the Negro, formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. W.E.B. Du Bois was picked to edit its monthly magazine, The Crisis.

August, 1911 saw Trotter gather his allies in Faneuil Hall to form the National Independent Political League. By 1912 the NIPL had members in over 15 states, mostly northern. Greenidge states its three demands on elected officials: “a Federal law against lynching, Federal enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment provision that denied congressional representation for states that disfranchised citizens, and Federal prohibition of discrimination in labor unions.” (183)

Woodrow Wilson, who had become governor of New Jersey in 1910 with the help of the Black vote, was the Democratic Party nominee for President in 1912. In his search for Black votes, he agreed to meet with the NIPL leadership in July, 1912. He said he would “observe the law in its letter and spirit….” (185)

Trotter called upon Guardian readers “to vote for Wilson, and Democratic congressional candidates generally, pointing out that the GOP had so thoroughly degraded black voters since Reconstruction that the modern era called for a different politics.”

Greenidge continues:

“Du Bois agreed with Trotter in his own Crisis endorsement of Wilson. Over 500,000 popular votes in the national election were held by black men in the North and West, Du Bois pointed out, a number that could make or break an election.

“Rather than sell these votes for ‘toothless appointments for assistant attorney general, recorder of deeds and a few other black wooden men whose duty it is to look pleasant,’ black men should sell their 500,000 votes for ‘abolition of the interstate Jim Crow car; the enforcement of the Thirteenth Amendment by the suppression of peonage; the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment by cutting down the representation in Congress of the rotten boroughs of the South; National aid to elementary public schools without class or racial discrimination.” (186)

Disappointment

Trotter and Du Bois were to be cruelly disappointed. Both “underestimated the speed at which Wilson’s cabinet transformed southern-style white supremacy into official Federal policy.” (189)

Segregation was just one part of the Jim Crow toolbox, along with lynching and all the other insidious measures designed to deny and stamp out any trace of Black humanity. Segregation of the Federal work force caused “job loss, salary decreases or humiliating work conditions” for black employees. Trotter and NIPL leaders met with Wilson again in November 1914, and tried to hold him accountable for his policies. After the meeting Trotter set out on a speaking tour denouncing the President’s course.

Before the confrontation he addressed “an antisegregation rally at the Nineteenth Street Baptist Church, where hundreds of black men, women, and children cheered as Trotter rose to speak.” (194) Ida B. Wells-Barnett, a prominent antilynching activist, also spoke.

The speaking tour saw Trotter address mass rallies in New York, Cleveland, Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Des Moines, Iowa.

“When black readers wrote letters praising Trotter’s ‘manly stand for our rights,’ then called out various ‘colored office-holders’ by name for ‘failing in their duty to the race,’ the Richmond Planet [a Black weekly in Virginia] agreed by sarcastically noting, ‘Brother Trotter and his committee forgot that they were citizens of the United States without a country. They believed that the Constitution and the laws of the United States mean just what they say.’” (206)

Anti-lynching Law Struggle

After launching the National Equal Rights League (NERL) around 1911, Trotter hooked up with New York City Caribbean-American radicals like Hubert Harrison to start a campaign for “Federal antilynching legislation” in 1917.

“On June 12, at the Bethel AME Church on West 132nd Street, Harrison led hundreds of black people in calls for Federal antilynching legislation, and introduced the crowd to a rising star in Caribbean radicalism, the Jamaican lecturer and newspaper editor Marcus Garvey.

“The next day, June 13, Harrison arrived at Trotter’s (Boston) Faneuil Hall rally after boarding a midnight train from New York. In Boston, as in New York, the hall was crowded to overflowing… over two thousand blacks cheered as Harrison and Trotter denounced ‘mob justice’ and demanded ‘a liberty congress for the colored masses.’” (243)

They formed an ad hoc group called the Liberty League and set their sights on a “Liberty League Congress” in 1918 to organize an anti-lynching petition to the U.S. Congress. In the early summer of that year the LLC gathered 115 delegates to write the petition. (255)

Their action complemented the activity of Congressman Leonidas Dyer, a Missouri Republican. In early April Dyer submitted House Resolution 11270. Known as the Dyer Bill, it called for federal prosecution for lynching when the state failed to protect victims and included compensation for the victim’s heirs. It became the focus of civil democratic radicals for the next four years. Trotter and others welcomed the support of the NAACP.

Significantly, the U.S. House of Represen­tatives passed the Dyer Bill on January 26, 1922. The vote was 230 to 119. However the Senate killed the bill. (323 and https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/naacp/the-new-negro-movement.html)

Jane Bosfield’s Struggle

In 1915, Jane Bosfield acted on the premise that the State of Massachusetts’ civil rights laws “mean just what they say.” Her “high test scores [state civil service examination], coupled with her academic records at Boston Evening High School and Cambridge Girls’ Latin, made her eligible for a secretary position at Medfield State Hospital, fifteen miles south of the city.” (223)

The 22-year-old Bosfield got an offer of employment in April. When she and her mother showed up to talk with the head of the hospital, Dr. Edward French, the job offer was withdrawn.

Trotter and the Guardian went to work. Black ministers in and out of the National Equal Rights League protested and publicized the case in their churches. Trotter confronted Governor David I. Walsh, “a Democrat who owed his own election to black voters” in Boston. (196)

The Governor “‘took a personal interest’ in Bosfield’s case” and “wrote a letter of complaint” to the state hospital board. He “publicly ‘deplored caste prejudice’ anywhere in the Commonwealth….” Further, he issued an order “for Medfield State Hospital to rehire Jane Bosfield or face retaliation by the state licensing board.” (224)

Bosfield was rehired, but barred from congregating and eating with other employees. When she defied the ban and ate amongst her fellow workers in the dining hall on the advice of her lawyers, she was fired — but hired again after the state legislature voted unanimously to overrule the hospital head.

As the case showed, civil democracy — the rule of law — existed in the North and West, but had to be fought for continually.

African Blood Brotherhood and UNIA

With the approach of World War I, Trotter increasingly found himself in the company of native-born and West Indian radicals like Reverend M.A.N. Shaw, Thaddeus Kitchener and Uriah N. Murray of Boston, and Hubert Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, Cyril V. Briggs and Marcus Garvey of New York City.

These radicals fought not only against Jim Crow in the South and civil inequality in the North and West, but also against social inequality. Randolph joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and edited The Messenger in 1917. Briggs edited a Harlem magazine called The Crusader.

In the fall of 1919 Trotter and Briggs initiated the African Blood Brotherhood, based mainly in Harlem. Some of its luminaries included W.A. Domingo, Richard B. Moore, Anselmo Jackson, Arthur Schomburg and Otto Huiswood.

But the one who caught the high tide was Marcus Garvey. He organized the first chapter of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, UNIA, in Jamaica in 1914. Upon landing in the United States in 1916, he set up a chapter in Harlem.

In 1917 Garvey lectured in “Boston, Atlanta, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Detroit, Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville, and other cities.” (Theodore G. Vincent, Black Power And The Garvey Movement, San Francisco: Ramparts Press, 1972, 100)

A new consciousness arose after World War I:

“The new awareness reached a dramatic height in the United States…as black troops returned from Europe. Writing in the NAACP magazine Crisis in 1919, W.E.B. DuBois exemplified the militant mood of the day: ‘We return. We return from fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.’

“Men who had seen a comparatively non-racist France wanted to bring some non-racist culture home, and returning blacks refused to accept segregated facilities and protested discriminatory practices. When white America tried to terrorize the Negro back into his ‘place’ by bringing lynch mobs into black communities, the black man fought back.

“The newly returned black troops took a leading role in defense against the mobs, as the community expected them to. Black soldiers had learned how to fight and, as some three dozen post-war race riots showed, black people pressed together in the compact ghetto could now snipe at invading whites and then escape in the maze of tenements.

“Participation in community defense was for many a first step toward involvement in a broad political struggle.” (Vincent, 34-35)

It was this backdrop that brought tens of thousands of Blacks into the UNIA, styling themselves as “New Negroes.” The first convention of this social momentum occurred in 1920.

Billed as “International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World,” the UNIA affair opened “on Monday night, August 2, 1920, at Madison Square Garden. The New York Times reported a crowd of nearly twenty-five thousand, and thousands who could not get in gathered in the area to discuss the day’s happenings.” (Vincent, 114)

The ABB drew up a manifesto for the occasion and was permitted to address the convention. The group chose Trotter to present it. He urged the gathering to “‘devise means to organize our People to the end of stopping the mob-murder of our men, women, and children and to protect them against sinister secret societies of cracke[r] whites.’”

He also called upon the UNIA to “work with the ABB and the NERL [National Equal Rights League — ed.] to ‘devise means to raise and protect the standard of living of the Negro People;…take steps to bring about a federation of all Negro organizations, thus molding all Negro factions into one mighty and formidable factor, governed and directed by a Central Body made up of representatives from all member organizations.’” (306-7)

“While Trotter’s wordy, heartfelt, and dramatic manifesto earned applause from the audience, his final demand ended the honeymoon between the NERL, the ABB, and Garvey. No doubt influenced by Briggs’s Communism, despite the fact that neither he nor Trotter formally joined the CP, the ABB concluded that Soviet Russia should ‘be endorsed…and the real foes of the negro race denounced.’

“Trotter, Briggs, and other ABB delegates insisted that they were not members of the CP, nor were they members of the SP; they were concerned with militant black civil rights, as Briggs, Randolph, and other black radicals later testified. If these rights could be secured through an international union of workers, as provided by recently created Soviet Russia, then the ‘International Race Congress’ should endorse the Soviet cause.”

According to Greenidge, “…the UNIA delegates to the race congress were stunned…. UNIA members tried to act as if Trotter and the ABB weren’t there….” (307)

Decades later, Briggs stated in his papers, “…he was not inspired by Garveyism, ‘nor was I interested in socialism per se. My sympathies were derived from the enlightened attitude of the Russian Bolsheviks toward national minorities….I believed then and still believe that the Russian Communists had successfully solved the national question.’” (Vincent, 79)

The important point is that the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (Bolsheviks) was taking their approach toward national and racial minorities inside the Russian Empire onto the international plane.

Eugene V. Debs, leader of the Socialist Party of America, “argued in 1903 that ‘there is no “Negro problem” apart from the general labor problem’ and expressed the hope that even in the South racial prejudice would soon evaporate. In another article the same year Debs insisted that the party had ‘nothing specific to offer the negro, and we cannot make special appeals to all the races. The Socialist Party is the party of the working class, regardless of color — the whole working class of the whole world.’” (Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs, Citizen and Socialist, University of Illinois Press, Urbana and Chicago, 1982, 226)

With all due respect for the revolutionary credentials of Comrade Debs, Comrade Lenin did make “special appeals” to oppressed national minorities. Inclusion of this approach in their program was a big reason why the Russian Bolsheviks led the workers, peasants, and soldiers to victory in October 1917.

That victory shook the global imperial structure, a structure born in 1492 with the Spanish and Portuguese plunder and exploitation of South, Central, and parts of North America; the transatlantic slave trade; the pillage of India by the British and French; and the spread of colonialism throughout the 19th century.

Colonialism and Jim Crow

During Trotter’s lifetime there was the 1884 Berlin Conference, where European powers decided how the human and natural resources of Africa would be divided up among them. Then came the invasion and division of China around 1900 by the same European powers plus the United States and Japan. In addition, there was the naked aggression and occupation by U.S. Marines of any Latin American or Caribbean country that obstructed the operations of U.S. big business — Haiti 1915-1934 and Nicaragua 1912-1933 as examples. Colonialism and neo-colonialism formed the international roots of Jim Crow. And the plutocrats bankrolled white supremacy theories to explain their global domination.

The ferocious ruling-class support of Jim Crow defeated the Crumpacker Resolution, the Tucker Act and the Dyer Bill, creating a complaint Southern labor force for whatever operations decided upon by big business. This was behind the failure of any post-Reconstruction movement for social change. The “farmers’ Grange, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and the Knights of Labor,” all rising in the last 40 years of the 19th century, backed away from any questioning of Jim Crow. (See an excellent work by Charles Postel, Equality, An American Dilemma, 1866-1996, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, 12.)

Even the women’s suffrage movement did not dare defy the racial hierarchy in the South for fear of alienating southern congressmen and senators.

Trotter died on the eve of the three great events that set in motion the labor upsurge of the 1930s— the Toledo auto-light strike, the Minneapolis coal drivers’ strike, and the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike. That upsurge, which might possibly have confronted Jim Crow, was cut short by World War II.

The victory of the Soviet Union over German Nazism in Europe (Hitler planned to colonize the USSR) and Japanese militarism in Manchuria (Stalin gave captured arms to Mao’s liberation army) would set the stage for an event that blew up the whole international edifice of Jim Crow — the Chinese Revolution of October 1949. (See Jack Belden, China Shakes the World, Monthly Review Press, New York and London, 1970.)

That event enabled the initial success of the Korean and Vietnamese revolutions, social democratic revolutions in the same mode as that of 1917. The Vietnamese victory at Dienbienphu, sealing the end of French colonialism in Asia, occurred in the same month as the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision outlawing school segregation. Jim Crow had one foot in the grave.

The victories of African independence movements plus the 1959 Cuban Revolution, and, most importantly, the Civil Rights Movement in the South, led to legislation in 1964 and 1965 that ultimately put Jim Crow’s whole body in its grave.

William Monroe Trotter was finally vindicated.

January-February 2021, ATC 210

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