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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
The hostility grew with the arrival of a civilian woman named Wilson who was to record Robinson’s statement. Robinson later recalled that the stenographer continually interrupted his statement with her own questions and comments, such as, “Don’t you know you have no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus.” Robinson challenged the right of a Texas civilian to interrogate him and finally snapped at her to stop interrupting. Captain Bear growled something about his being “uppity,” and when Robinson insisted on making corrections in the written statement before signing it, the civilian stenographer jumped up and said, “I don’t have to take that sassy kind of talk from you.”
As a result of the evening’s events, camp officials were determined to court-martial Robinson. When his commanding officer, Col. R. L. Bates, refused to endorse the court-martial orders, the authorities transferred Robinson to the 758th Tank Battalion, whose commander promptly signed. Robinson was charged with insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer.
FACED WITH SO MANY counts, Robinson feared that there was a conspiracy against him at Fort Hood and that he would be dishonorably discharged. He wrote to the NAACP for “advice or help on the matter.
“The people have a pretty good bunch of lies,” he reported. “When I read some of the statments of the witnesses I was certain that these people had got together and was going to frame me.” While admitting that he had cursed after the bus dispatcher had called him a “nigger,” he denied “calling the people around all sorts of names.” “If I didn’t respect them,” he protested, “I certainly would have Mrs. Jones.”
Robinson was particularly upset because officials had not even asked Mrs. Jones to give a statement. He felt that he was “being unfairly punished because I wouldn’t be pushed around by the driver of the bus,” and was “looking for a civilian lawyer to handle my case because I know he will be able to free the truth with a little technique.”
His fear of a conspiracy was not groundless. During World War II, according to the historian Jack D. Foner, “many black soldiers were unjustly convicted by courts-martial, either because their officers assumed their guilt regardless of the evidence or because they wanted to ‘set an example’ for other black soldiers.” The demand on the NAACP for assistance for black soldiers was so great that they had to turn down most requests unless the case was deemed to be “of national importance to the Negro race.” In a letter actually dated one day after the trial, the NAACP informed Robinson that “we will be unable to furnish you with an attorney in the event that you are court-martialled.”
Meanwhile, among black soldiers in the Southwest, “Jackie Robinson s encounter with a cracker bus driver” had become, according to Lieutenant Duplessis, the “racial cause célèbre.” Robinson’s hasty transfer from the 761st Tank Battalion to the 758th led many black officers to believe that the Army was attempting to try him in secrecy. A group of them wrote letters to the NAACP and to two of the more influential black newspapers, the Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender . Lt. Ivan Harrison recalls the campaign as follows: “The NAACP, his fraternity, and the Negro press soon learned about Jackie and the messages began to pour in demanding to know what happened. They moved Jackie to another camp, then answered he was no longer a member of the 761st. Of course, the black underground soon notified them where he could be found. … It was beginning to be such a hot potato that they held what I am sure was the shortest court-martial in the history of the armed services.
Harrison was wrong about that; the court-martial proceedings lasted more than four hours. And although the black press made scant mention of the Robinson case, the officers’campaign did have some notable success. All charges stemming from the actual incident on the bus and Robinson’s argument with the civilian secretary were dropped. He had still to face a court-martial, but on the two lesser charges of insubordination arising from his confrontation in the guardhouse.
Robinson feared that there was a conspiracy against him at Fort Hood.
Although the dismissal of the more serious charges was to Robinson’s advantage, it also made his defense more difficult. He was being tried for insubordination, but no mention of the event which caused this rebellious behavior —the encounter on the bus—was to be allowed. Nor were the actions of the stenographer to be considered. Robinson was no longer on trial for refusing to move to the back of a bus, which was within his rights, or for responding to the racial slurs of a civilian, but for acting with “disrespect” toward Captain Bear and disobeying a lawful command given by that officer.