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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
In the meantime, a problem had arisen regarding Robinson’s defense. Unable to get help from the NAACP, he had been assigned a young Southern lawyer to act as his counsel. Before Robinson could even protest, the lawyer withdrew from the case: having been raised in the South, he said, he had not “developed arguments against segregation” that were necessary to defend Robinson adequately. He did, however, arrange for Robinson to engage Lt. William Cline, a lawyer from Texas who was eager to handle the case.
The court-martial of 2d Lt. Jackie Robinson took place on August 2, 1944. The heart of the prosecution’s case was presented by Captains Bear and Wigginton, who told essentially the same story. As they had attempted to ascertain the facts of the events of July 6, Robinson continually interrupted them and acted disrespectfully. When ordered from the room, according to Bear, Robinson continued to stand by the half-gate door, “leaning on the half gate down in a slouching position with his elbows resting on the gate, and he kept interrupting.” Several times, said Bear, he told the black lieutenant to get away from the door, and in response, Robinson bowed and said, “O.K., sir. O.K., sir. O.K., sir.” Bear demonstrated the way in which Robinson bowed as he “kind of smirked or grimaced his face.”
CAPTAIN BEAR TESTIFIED that he gave Robinson a direct order to remain seated until called upon. Instead the lieutenant went outside and was “pitching rocks” and talking to the driver of a jeep. When ordered back inside, said Bear, Robinson complied “reluctantly … with his hands in his pockets, swaying, shifting his weight from one foot to the other.”
When Robinson was brought into the orderly room to make his statement, said Bear, “everything he said seemed facetious to him, and he seemed to be trying to make fun of it … he would raise and lower his words, and he would say, ‘Oh, yeah’ when I would ask him a question, and several times I asked him not to go so fast and to tone his language down.” He seemed “argumentative” and asked questions such as, “Well, do I have to answer that?” When asked to speak more slowly, according to Bear, Robinson began to “baby talk,” exaggerating the pause between each word.
Once Robinson’s statement had been taken, Bear arranged transportation for him back to the hospital, but the lieutenant stated that he did not want to go back, since he had a pass until eight in the morning. In Captain Wigginton’s opinion, Robinson was “very disrespectful, ” which led the officer of the day to threaten to arrest him for insubordination.
In his own testimony Robinson countered most of the accusations against him. He admitted breaking in on the conversation between Captain Wigginton and Private Mucklerath, but “to my mind I was not interrupting at all; Pvt. Mucklerath stated something that I did not think was quite right and I interrupted him to see if I could … get him to correct his statement.” After complaining that Mucklerath had called him a “nigger lieutenant,” he was asked if he knew what a nigger was. “I looked it up once, said Robinson, “but my grandmother gave me a good definition, she was a slave, and she said the definition of the word was a low, uncouth person, and pertains to no one in particular; but I don’t consider that I am low and uncouth. … When I made this statement I did not like to be called nigger, I told the Captain, I said, ‘If you call me a nigger, I might have said the same thing to you. …’ I do not consider myself a nigger at all. I am a Negro, but not a nigger.”
Robinson denied most of the specific accusations made against him and stated that Bear had been “not polite at all” from the moment he arrived, and “very uncivil toward me” when taking the statement. “He did not seem to recognize me as an officer at all. But I did consider myself an officer and felt that I should be addressed as one.” And, he added bitterly, “they asked that private to sit down.”
Robinson’s testimony held up better under crossexamination than did Bear’s or Wigginton’s. There were several flaws and omissions in the accounts of the two captains. Referring to the “argumentative” questions Robinson had raised in giving his statement, Cline asked Bear if it was “improper for an accused to make such inquiry as that.” When prodded, Bear stated that it was not. Had not Bear ordered Robinson to “be at ease,” asked one of the judges presiding. If so, he continued, “I do not see the manner in which he leaned on the gate had anything to do with you.”
The questions of whether Robinson had been placed under arrest on July 6 and whether he had refused to accept the transportation that Bear had ordered for his return to the hospital were also targets of the cross-examination. Defense questioning revealed that the vehicle provided was, in reality, a military police pickup truck. Yet Bear had testified that he had informed Robinson that he was being placed under arrest in quarters, in which case, no bodily restrictions were allowed. Robinson was within his rights to protest.