Jackie Robinson Court Martialed For Fighting Discrimination
One of the most famous incidents in American sports history occurred when Branch Rickey, the general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for an African-American player to integrate Major League baseball. That role would require a man who could take tremendous abuse without hitting back. When the man he selected asked if Mr. Rickey was looking for a Negro who was afraid to fight back, Branch Rickey famously replied that he was looking for a man “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Jackie Robinson: A pioneer who paid a huge price
Jackie Robinson became that man. He made the commitment Branch Rickey asked of him, that for three years he would refuse to retaliate for all the racial abuse he would inevitably receive. In the process of carrying out that commitment, he changed not only Major League baseball, but the nation.
But the price he paid by his refusal to retaliate for the abuse heaped upon him is beyond calculation. What that price must’ve been begins to become apparent when you realize that refusing to fight was the exact opposite of Jackie Robinson’s nature. He had been a vociferous and even angry fighter against racism all his life.
It was that very determination to combat racism, and never give in to it, that led him to refuse to move to the back of the bus when a racist bus driver demanded that he do so. And that refusal led to 2nd Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson being court-martialed by the United States Army in 1944.
Jackie Robinson enters the US Army
Jackie Robinson had been drafted in 1942, becoming part of the first large group of African-Americans ever inducted into the United States Army. In 1940 less than 1 percent of men serving in the United States military were black. When the nation began a massive mobilization upon its entry into World War II, it quickly became clear that the Army was ill-equipped to handle the influx of African-Americans that followed.
In its perplexity about how to deal with the large number of black recruits it now had on his hands, the Army made some fundamental errors. All of the new African-American soldiers were assigned to segregated units under the command of white officers. In 1940 there had been only five black officers (three of them chaplains) in the United States Army. The Army was not very interested in having more.
Under the theory that Southerners would best know how to deal with “Negro recruits," many of the black units were commanded by Southern white officers. These were men who, not unnaturally, were dedicated to maintaining the Jim Crow traditions of the South. It took the Army some time to discover, to its dismay, that this strategy had some built-in problems. More than one third of the new African-American recruits came from the North. And, as a War Department report acknowledged, these new soldiers lacked “the appearance of servility traditionally associated with the Southern Negro.”
Jackie’s first encounter with racism in the military
Jackie Robinson certainly fit that mold. Initially assigned for training to Fort Riley Kansas, Jackie quickly began to demonstrate his leadership abilities. With three years of college at UCLA, Jackie was quickly promoted to corporal and aspired to become an officer. But he found that no African-Americans were being admitted to the Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley. Jackie had developed a relationship with heavyweight champion Joe Louis, who had influence with the Secretary of War’s African-American civilian aide, Truman Gibson. An investigation was quietly conducted, and soon Jackie Robinson and several other African-Americans were admitted to the OCS.
In January 1943 Jackie was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army. He had won his first encounter with the institutional racism that was rife in the military. But there was much more to come.
Fort Riley was a thoroughly segregated facility, and Jackie, now a platoon leader and the morale officer of his unit, made strenuous objections to many of the segregated practices in that command. One characteristic incident occurred when Jackie, who had been an All-America football player at UCLA, refused to play for the post football team without also being allowed to play on the all-white baseball team. His commanding officer reminded him that he could be ordered to play football. Jackie replied, yes, that was so. He could be ordered to play, but he could not be ordered to play well.
Jackie is assigned to a segregated post in the South
In early 1944 Lieutenant Robinson was assigned to Camp Hood in Texas, attached to the 761st Tank Battalion. This all-black unit would soon be headed overseas, where, under the command of Gen. George Patton, it would distinguish itself in the Battle of the Bulge. But at Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) there were different battles to be fought.
The area in which Camp Hood was located, about 40 miles southwest of Waco, Texas, was one of the most racially antagonistic in the entire nation. All facilities, both on and off military posts, were completely segregated. Even before Jackie’s arrival, Camp Hood had been described as one of the worst facilities for African-Americans in the entire United States Army. One of the biggest problem areas was with transportation on the buses serving the post.
As one officer remembered, the segregated buses caused so many problems that commanders often allowed the men to use the post’s trucks to go into town, in order to avoid the bus situation.
On July 6, 1944 Jackie Robinson and the practice of stringent segregation on the buses serving the post collided head-on.
Jackie refuses to move to the back of the bus
Jackie was returning to camp from a medical appointment in town. Ironically, he had been trying to get a medical waiver for an ankle injury so he could accompany his unit when they shipped out for combat overseas.
When he got on the bus he saw Virginia Jones, the light-skinned wife of a fellow officer, seated about halfway back. He sat down beside her. After a few blocks, the bus driver, Milton Reneger, turned and demanded that the Lieutenant move to a seat further toward the back of the bus. Jackie Robinson refused. As Jackie’s attorney recalls, when Reneger persisted, Jackie told him “you go drive the bus, I’ll sit where I want to sit.”
In his autobiography, Jackie records what was going on in his mind at the time.
I was aware of the fact that recently Joe Louis and Ray Robinson had refused to move to the backs of buses in the South. The resulting publicity had caused the Army to put out regulations barring racial discrimination on any vehicle operating on an Army post. Knowing about these regulations, I had no intention of being intimidated into moving to the back of the bus.
As Jackie recalls, when the bus reached the last stop on the post, the driver jumped out and quickly returned with his dispatcher and some other drivers. The emotional temperature of the encounter began to rise as the dispatcher, a man by the name of Beverly Younger, referred to Jackie to his face using a highly offensive racial epithet. A small crowd of whites, both civilians and military personnel, and all quite hostile to Jackie, quickly formed. The N-word was freely used.
Soon, two military policeman arrived. They asked, politely, if Lieutenant Robinson would accompany them to the military police headquarters. He agreed, and along with most of the crowd, it seemed, set out for the station.
Jackie is provoked by racial epithets
Once arrived at the building, even greater confusion ensued. An MP met them, asking if they had the “N- lieutenant.” The same extremely offensive term was used several times by the MP Sergeant, until Jackie finally announced, “if you call me a ‘N- lieutenant’ one more time or make reference to me as ‘N- lieutenant,’ I’m going to break your back.” The MP Sergeant apparently did not use that term again.
The confusion continued as the Assistant Provost Marshal, Captain Gerald Bear, attempted to question supposed witnesses. All the whites, civilian and military, uniformly denounced Jackie’s behavior on the bus and at the police facility. Jackie, feeling himself surrounded by hostile forces, vehemently contradicted their accounts. There is some dispute about exactly how events played out from that point, but eventually Captain Bear, accusing Jackie of displaying a “sloppy and contemptuous” demeanor, placed him under arrest.
A Court-Martial is ordered
According to Jackie’s attorney, Bear was so enraged by Jackie’s attitude that “he filed every kind of complaint you can imagine.” Robinson was accused of showing disrespect toward a superior officer and failing to obey a direct command. These charges were considered serious enough to warrant a general court-martial.
Jackie, now confined to quarters, continued his fight. He contacted the NAACP, and also wrote to the War Department’s civilian aide Truman Gibson, who had been instrumental in securing Jackie’s original appointment to Officer Candidate School at Fort Riley.
One of Jackie’s fellow officers anonymously wrote to the NAACP saying, “the whole business was cooked up as insubordination. Robinson’s predicament amounted to a typical effort to intimidate Negro officers and enlisted men” at Camp Hood.
In his letter to Gibson, Jackie admitted that he had used strong language during the encounter at the police station. But, he said, it was only after being heavily provoked by the continued use of racially incendiary language toward him. He continued, "I don't want any unfavorable publicity for myself or the Army, but I believe in fair play."
Although he had initially expected that the NAACP to supply him with a lawyer, Jackie eventually accepted the services of the defense attorney appointed by the Army. He was Captain William A. Cline, a white officer from Texas. Interviewed in 2012 at the age of 101, Capt. Cline still had vivid memories of Jackie and his case. Initially, when Jackie told him that he expected a lawyer from the NAACP Capt. Cline told Jackie that was good because he came from just about as far South as you could get! But, when Jackie did eventually ask Capt. Cline to represent him, the Army lawyer got right on the case and did a very effective job.
Jackie’s commanding officer refuses to sign Court Martial papers
The decision to court-martial Jackie ran into an immediate snag. Lt. Col. Paul Bates, the commanding officer of the 761st, refused to sign court-martial papers. According to the recollections of Capt. Cline, Col. Bates felt there was no basis to the charges. He considered Robinson to be an exemplary officer, and during the trial would be his greatest supporter.
After Col. Bates refused to sanction the court-martial, Jackie was transferred from the 761st to the 758th Tank Battalion. The court- martial papers were then signed. Although the transfer had already been in the works before the bus incident took place, Col. Bates’ wife, Taffy, confirms that Jackie was “transferred from 761st, because Paul refused to sign court martial papers.”
By the time the court-martial began on August 2, 1944, the charges against Jackie were significantly different than what might have been expected. All mention of the bus incident itself was suppressed, and the charges concerned only Robinson’s behavior at the police station. Obviously, the prosecution’s intent was to keep the racially motivated provocations that underlay the African American officer’s behavior out of the record.
However, by skillful questioning, Jackie’s attorney, Capt. Cline, was not only able to bring in references to the events that caused the initial confrontation, but also to demonstrate inconsistencies in the stories told by prosecution witnesses. Significantly, Cline’s questioning of Captain Bear showed that the Assistant Provost Marshall, who originally filed the charges of insubordination and disobedience to orders, could not confirm that he had actually issued any actionable orders to the Lieutenant. In the absence of definite and direct orders, the charge of disobedience to orders became moot.
An “Excellent” officer
Probably the biggest factor in the outcome of the trial was the testimony of Jackie’s commanding officer in the 761st, Col. Bates. He forcefully stated his assessment that Lt. Robinson was an officer of excellent character, demeanor, job performance, and reputation in his command. That assessment was echoed by all of Robinson’s superiors. These officers, all of them white, testified that Jackie was “held in high regard” in the 761st. Col. Bates volunteered the information that he thought so highly of Robinson as a leader, that, despite the ex-football player’s ankle injury that would ordinarily prevent his deployment, Bates had worked hard to keep the young Lieutenant with the battalion when it deployed overseas for combat.
What the case was really all about
In his own testimony, Jackie explained what had motivated him as he responded to the epithets hurled at him during the incident. He said,
My grandmother was a slave. She told me a N- was a low, uncouth person, and pertains to no one in particular; but I don’t consider that I am low and uncouth. I am a Negro, but not a N-.
Jackie’s attorney, Captain Cline, made clear in his summation what this case was really all about. It was, he said, “simply a situation in which a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a Negro they considered ‘uppity’ because he had the audacity to seek to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and as a soldier.”
Jackie is acquitted
The nine-member panel hearing the case, all combat officers, apparently agreed with Captain Cline’s assessment. They unanimously acquitted Jackie Robinson of all charges.
In November of 1944, based on the ankle injury, Jackie received an honorable discharge from the Army due to “physical disqualification.”
A year later, in 1945, Jackie Robinson was selected by Branch Rickey to break the Major League color barrier. In doing so, he would be subjected to the most vile racial invective imaginable. This time, fighting racism would require that he refuse to be provoked by the slurs.
It is, to my mind, a measure of the courage and commitment of this man, who was willing to risk his military career and even prison rather than give in to the evil of racism, that for three years he took all the abuse heaped on him in every Major League ballpark he played in. By doing so, perhaps at the cost, as many believe, of shortening his own life, Jackie Robinson forever changed not just a sport, but a nation.
© 2013 Ronald E. Franklin