The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson

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ON JULY 6, 1944, Jackie Robinson, a twenty-five-year-old lieutenant, boarded an Army bus at Fort Hood, Texas. Sixteen months later he would be tapped as the man to break baseball’s color barrier, but in 1944 he was one of thousands of blacks thrust into the Jim Crow South during World War II. He was with the light-skinned wife of a fellow black officer, and the two walked half the length of the bus, then sat down, talking amiably. The driver, gazing into his rear-view mirror, saw a black officer seated in the middle of the bus next to a woman who appeared to be white. Hey, you, sittin’ beside that woman,” he yelled. “Get to the back of the bus.”

Lieutenant Robinson ignored the order. The driver stopped the bus, marched back to where the two passengers were sitting, and demanded that the lieutenant get to the back of the bus where the colored people belong.” Robinson refused, and so began a series of events that led to his arrest and court-martial and, finally, threatened his entire career.

Jackie Robinson was already a national celebrity in 1944. During a spectacular athletic career a the University of California at Los Angeles, he had starred in basketball, football, track, and baseball. He was drafted in April 1942, and during the following year a study of blacks in the Army singled him out. “Social Intercourse between the races has been discouraged, ” it was reported in Jim Crow Joins Up , “yet Negro athletes such as Joe Louis, the prizefighter, and Jack Robinson, the All-American football star … are today greatly admired in the army.”

Initially, Robinson had been assigned to a cavalry unit at Fort Riley, Kansas, where he applied for Officers’ Candidate School. Official Army policy provided for the training of black officers in integrated facilities; in reality, however, few blacks had yet gained access to OCS. At Fort Riley, Robinson was rejected and told, off the record, that blacks were excluded from OCS because they lacked leadership ability.

Robinson took his plight not to Army officials hut to an even more commanding figure—Joe Louis, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. Louis was also stationed at Fort Riley, and although he was not a commissioned officer, his status was somewhat higher than that of a raw recruit. Louis investigated the situation and arranged a meeting for black soldiers to voice their grievances in the presence of a representative of the secretary of defense. Within a few days of this session, several blacks, including Robinson, were enrolled in OCS.

Robinson’s Army career, however, continued to be stormy, and a good part of the tempest revolved around sports. Athletics were an important part of military life; teams from different Army forts competed against one another and against college teams. Professional and college athletes, once drafted, often found themselves spending the war on the baseball diamond or the gridiron. The coaches of Fort Riley’s highly competitive football team tried to persuade Robinson—at the time more renowned for his football prowess than for his baseball skills—to join the squad.

Robinson had other ideas. Earlier in his Army career he had wanted to try out for the camp baseball team. Pete Reiser, who was to be Robinson’s teammate on the Dodgers and who played on the Fort Riley squad, later recalled Robinson’s humiliating rejection: “One day a Negro Lieutenant came out for the ball team. An officer told him he couldn’t play. ‘You have to play for the colored team,’ the officer said. That was a joke. There was no colored team. The lieutenant stood there for a while watching us work out. Then he turned and walked away. I didn’t know who he was then, but that was the first time I saw Jackie Robinson. I can still remember him walking away by himself.”

Refused the baseball field, Robinson balked at representing Fort Riley as a running back. A colonel threatened to order him to participate, but Robinson remained adamant. To the dismay of the Fort Riley football fans, the best running back in camp refused to suit up.

In January 1943 Robinson was commissioned a second lieutenant and appointed acting morale officer for a black company at Fort Riley. As might be expected, the principal obstacles to high morale were the Jim Crow regulations governing the camp. Particularly upsetting were conditions at the post exchange, where only a few seats had been set aside for black soldiers. Robinson telephoned the base provost marshal, Major Hafner, to protest this situation; the major said that taking seats away from the white soldiers and giving them to blacks would cause a problem among the white troops. Furthermore, he could not believe that the lieutenant actually wanted the races seated together.

“Let me put it this way,” Robinson remembered the officer as saying: “How would you like to have your wife sitting next to a nigger?”

Robinson exploded. “Major, I happen to be a Negro,” he shouted, “and I don’t know that to have anyone’s wife sitting next to a Negro is any worse than to have her sitting next to some of these white soldiers I see around here.”

“I just want you to know,” said Hafner, “that I don’t want my wife sitting close to any colored guy.”