- Historic Sites
The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson
He was a lieutenant in the Army of the United States: he saw no reason to sit in the back of the bus
August/september 1984 | Volume 35, Issue 5
“How the hell do you know that your wife hasn’t already been close to one?” asked Robinson as he launched into a tirade against the major.
The provost marshal hung up on him, but Robinson’s protest was not fruitless: although separate areas in the post exchange remained the rule, blacks were allotted additional seats.
ROBINSON WAS NEVER punished or disciplined for being insolent to his superior officer, but he was soon transferred to the 761st Tank Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. It was not an improvement. “The prejudice and discrimination at Camp Hood made [other bases] seem ultraliberal in [their] attitude,” recalled Harry Duplessis, one of Robinson’s fellow black officers. “Camp Hood was frightening. … Segregation there was so complete that I even saw outhouses marked White, Colored, and Mexican.
Nevertheless, Robinson’s performance was so outstanding that even though he was on “limited service” because of an old ankle injury, his commanding officer requested that he go overseas with the battalion. In order to do so, Robinson was required to sign a waiver relieving the Army of all responsibility in the event of injury. Robinson agreed, but Army medical authorities insisted the ankle be examined before giving their approval.
The medical examination took place at a hospital thirty miles from Fort Hood. While waiting for the results, Robinson got a pass to visit with his company. He arrived at the base to find the battalion off on maneuvers, so he stopped at the officers’ club, where he met Mrs. Gordon H. Jones, the wife of another black lieutenant. Since she lived on the way to the hospital, they boarded the bus together.
For black soldiers in the South, a bus trip could be a humiliating experience.
For black soldiers in the South, the shortest bus trip could be a humiliating and even dangerous experience. According to the Pittsburgh Courier , which cited a “mountain of complaints from Negro soldiers,” “frustrations on buses in the South was one of the most fruitful sources of trouble for Negro soldiers.” In Durham, North Carolina, only weeks before, an altercation had ended with the driver shooting and killing a black soldier who had refused to move to the back of a bus. The driver was tried and found not guilty by a civilian jury. Unable to change the rules on civilian bus lines, the Army began to provide its own, nonsegregated buses on Southern bases. The action was given no publicity at first and was ignored at many bases. In June 1944, however, the story had been made public, and the resulting furor had brought the Army policy to the attention of many black soldiers.
When Robinson boarded the bus with Mrs. Jones on July 6, he was aware that military buses had been ordered desegregated. As he wrote to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People two weeks later, “I refused to move because I recalled a letter from Wash- ington which states that there is to be no segregation on army posts.” In his autobiography Robinson stated that the boxers Joe Louis and Ray Robinson had also influenced his actions by their recent refusals to obey Jim Crow regulations at a bus depot in Alabama. In any event, Lieutenant Robinson told the driver: “The Army recently issued orders that there is to be no more racial segregation on any Army post. This is an Army bus operating on an Army post.”
The man backed down, but at the end of the line, as Robinson and Mrs. Jones waited for a second bus, he returned with his dispatcher and two other drivers. The dispatcher turned to the driver and asked, “Is this the nigger that’s been causing you trouble?” Leaving Mrs. Jones, Robinson shook a finger in the driver’s face and told him to “quit f——— with me.” As Robinson started walking away, two military policemen arrived on the scene and suggested that he explain the situation to the provost marshal.
Lieutenant Robinson was driven to military police headquarters by two MP’s. They were met there by Pvt. Ben W. Mucklerath, who asked CpI. George A. Elwood, one of ten MP’s, if he had a “nigger lieutenant” in the car. Robinson told the enlisted man that “if he ever called me a nigger again I would break him in two.” The first officer on the scene was Capt. Peelor Wigginton, the officer of the day. When Wigginton began to take Mucklerath’s story, Robinson interrupted. He was ordered out of the room until the assistant provost marshal, Capt. Gerald M. Bear, came to take over the investigation.
When the Southern-born Captain Bear arrived, Robinson started to follow him into the guard room, only to be told, “Nobody comes into the room until I tell him.” Why then, asked Robinson, was Private Mucklerath already in the room? When Captain Wigginton began briefing Captain Bear on Mucklerath’s testimony, Robinson, standing by the door, complained that the account was inaccurate.