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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
Lieutenant Cline was not totally successful in discrediting the witnesses for the prosecution. Efforts to relate Robinson’s behavior to the incident on the bus were disallowed. Both Bear and Wigginton denied that there had been any unusual exchange between Robinson and the stenographer, preventing the defense from exploring this aspect of the case. Nonetheless, by the time the two men left the witness stand, key segments of their testimony had been either repudiated or placed in doubt.
The prosecution’s cross-examination of Lieutenant Robinson was far less effective. Robinson denied having had any drinks that evening, though “evidently they thought I had.” He also stated that he had not willfully disobeyed a direct order. The only reason that he had argued with Bear, he explained, was that he had asked the captain half a dozen times whether he was under arrest—and if he was not, Robinson wanted to know why he was being escorted back to the hospital under guard. By his own admission, Bear had given Robinson ambiguous answers. Unlike Bear and Wigginton, Robinson was subjected to virtually no examination by the court-martial board.
The defense also presented several character witnesses from Robinson’s battalion. The most significant testimony came from Colonel Bates. Bates stated that Robinson was an officer he would like to have under his command in combat, and several times the prosecution and the court itself reprimanded the colonel for volunteering unsolicited praise of Robinson.
When the defense had rested, the prosecution called a few additional witnesses. All supported the story told by Captains Bear and Wigginton but none proved to be particularly effective. Private Mucklerath was notably lacking in credibility. While he recalled Robinson’s vow that if the private ever “called him a nigger he would break [me] in two,” he denied having used that term and could not explain why the black lieutenant had said this. He was followed to the stand, however, by Corporal Elwood, who, while generally supporting the testimony of the other whites, admitted that Mucklerath had indeed asked him if he had a “nigger lieutenant” in the car.
Elwood was the last witness to be heard. The attorneys then made their closing arguments, and Robinson later recalled: “My lawyer summed up the case beautifully by telling the board that this was not a case involving any violation of the Articles of War, or even of military tradition, but 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 exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and a soldier.”
Robinson and his lawyer then settled down to await the verdict. They did not have long to wait. Voting by secret written ballot, the nine judges found Robinson “not guilty of all specifications and charges.”
The ordeal that had begun almost a month earlier on a military bus was finally over. To some extent the acquittal was due to the fact that Robinson was a renowned figure—his conviction might have proven an embarrassment for the Army. For most other black soldiers, however, neither military nor Southern justice was likely to have produced such a conclusion.
ROBINSON WAS NOW free to resume his service career, but his Army experiences had taken their toll on his patriotic fervor. A month earlier he had been willing to waive his rights to compensation for injury and go overseas, but now his main desire was to leave the service altogether. With Colonel Bates and his tank battalion already on the way to Europe, Robinson did not wish to join another unit. He asked to be released from the Army. He was quickly transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky, where he coached black athletic teams until he was honorably discharged in November 1944.
Had the court-rnartial of Jackie Robinson been an isolated incident, it would be little more than a curious episode in the life of a great athlete. His humiliating confrontations with discrimination, however, were typical of the experience of the black soldier; and his rebellion against Jim Crow attitudes was just one of the many instances in which blacks, recruited to fight a war against racism in Europe, began to resist the dictates of segregation in America. As Robinson later wrote of his acquittal at Fort Hood, “It was a small victory, for I had learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.”