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The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson – Podcast #21

When I was growing up, my dad loved sports and I’m not as big a fan, but he always talked about sports. And one of the people that he always mentioned was Jackie Robinson. He mentioned many others, but he always seemed to come back to Jackie Robinson. I think he was just a really, really big fan of his. 

A couple of weeks ago, which was April 15, 2009, I was watching TV and I notice on the news that they mentioned that all of the players in the major leagues of baseball were wearing number 42 on their jerseys. That happened to be Jackie Robinson’s number. That number was retired from all the Major League teams back in 1997 to honor him. Since April 15th was the 67th anniversary of his entrance into the major leagues, all of the players that day wore his number to honor him. 

It was at that moment that I shoved aside the podcast that I was working on and decided to tell you this story. I just thought it was an appropriate time. It’s a story that I’ve been sitting on for a couple of years. I don’t know where I came across it, but I have been accumulating bits and pieces here and there and just kind of put them in a file folder. 

#42 Jackie Robinson in 1954
#42 Jackie Robinson in 1954. Library of Congress image.

And as soon as I heard this on the news, I knew I had to share with you because so many people know about Jackie Robinson, the baseball player, one of the greatest of all time, and how he broke down the color barrier, but few people know just prior to him going into the Major leagues he faced a court-martial in the military. He was almost dishonorably discharged, which would have meant the end of any professional career in baseball, basketball, football, or whatever he would have chosen. 

So, the fact that we know anything about him today may be because of the outcome of this trial. I thought it would be a good thing to tell you because it’s something that few people actually know about. 

So, let’s start with little background: 

The first thing you should probably know was that Jackie Robinson was the first UCLA student to ever letter in four sports in the same season. They were track, basketball, football, and baseball, for which is famous.  Yet, most people don’t know is that baseball was his worst sport in college. He was their star running back in football. Kind of an odd little twist there… 

The other thing that you should probably know, and this doesn’t have anything to do with the story, but he wasn’t the only one that was good at sports in his family. His brother Mack finished second to Jesse Owens in the 200-meter dash in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. 

Unfortunately, Jackie was forced to drop out of UCLA in 1940, in the latter part of his senior year, because of the bad financial situation at home. Since professional-level athletics were off-limits to blacks at this time, he had no choice but to take a number of lower-level sports-related jobs until he was drafted into the Army in 1942.  

And that is where this story begins. 

Like so many other draftees, he was assigned to an Army calvary at Fort Riley in Kansas, and he began to think that maybe there was a career there. He applied for Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Wright. 

The army did have an established policy of allowing African Americans into the OCS. They had established that in July 1941 just prior to Robinson entering the military. But the reality was that they weren’t letting anyone in. One could apply, but your application just seemed to be caught up permanent review. No blacks were being admitted to the OCS. 

And when Jackie realized this, he turned to Joe Louis. who was the heavyweight champion of the world at the time and just happened to be at Fort Riley.  Joe Lewis was not a commissioned officer, but he had clout and he was able to bring the situation to the attention of some of his commanding officers. It wasn’t very long before Jackie Robinson and several other black men were enrolled in the OCS.   

Keep in mind that Jackie Robinson was somewhat of a national sports celebrity this time, and while he may have been thinking about a military career, the coaches at the Fort had a different thing in mind. They wanted him on their football team. Jackie Robinson turned them down and requested to play on their baseball team. 

Robinson tried out for the baseball team but when he showed up for tryouts, he was told by an officer that he had to play for the colored team. Not only was this insulting but there was no colored team. They were attempting to force Robinson to play on the football team. They threatened to force him so Jackie Robinson made it very clear that they can force him to play, but they can’t force him to play well. And that was the end of them trying to get him onto the football team. 

In January 1943, Robinson was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. At this time, black officers in the Jim Crow South got very little respect from whites, and he had several more minor run-ins with the prejudicial white officers at the base. 

As an officer, Robinson wanted to accompany his battalion overseas, but there was one little minor problem: Jackie Robinson was on limited service due to an ankle injury he’d received playing sports in college. The military did permit him to go overseas with his battalion, but this required him to forfeit his right to sue. They didn’t want to get sued if he got hurt overseas. Robinson agreed to sign away his rights if they let him go. 

Well, they turned around and told him that they would let him go if he got a medical exam and the doctors said that it was okay.  Robinson agreed and that’s where the trouble began. 

The medical examination itself basically was a non-event. It took place at a hospital about thirty miles from the base on July 6, 1944, but it was while he was waiting for the results that he got himself into trouble. After the examination, Robinson was given a pass back to the base only to find his battalion out on maneuvers.  

He had some time to spare and decided to go to the Officer’s club. While there, he met the wife of another black Lieutenant, a woman named Mrs. Gordon H. Jones. 

When he finally decided to go back to the hospital to get his results, Mrs. Jones mentioned that her house was along the way. Mrs. Jones accompanied Jackie Robinson on his bus ride back to the hospital and this is where the real trouble started. While the US military may have been officially desegregated on paper, but in the South, it was not.  The Jim Crow mentality was still in full force. 

Upon boarding the bus, Robinson sat right down next to Mrs. Jones. She had much lighter skin than Robinson, so the bus driver concluded that she was white and sitting on the bus next to a black man. The driver, Milton Reneger, demanded that Robinson move further back on the bus.  The policy was that blacks had to sit in the rear of the bus.  

Jackie refused to budge. He knew that the army had issued orders ending racial segregation on military bases, and he was well within his rights to sit next to her. A heated argument ensued, and the driver eventually backed down and the ride continued. 

Everything seemed fine until Robinson and Mrs. Jones had to switch buses, at which point the driver returned with his dispatcher and two other drivers and the war of words began to escalate. It became increasingly intense with a lot of bad words. You know: the F-bomb, the really bad N-word, and so on being tossed back and forth among all the parties involved. 

At the time, it was okay for white men to belittle black men with the N-word and other racial remarks, but it was not acceptable for a black man to do the same to a white person. Doing so would get one in big trouble. It all ended with Robinson being escorted by two MP’s back to police headquarters at the base. While inside the guard building, Robinson continued to be belittled with racially unfriendly remarks. 

He was given a hearing before assistant Provost Marshall Captain Gerald M. Bear. And Bear truly was a bear. Robinso received a totally unbalanced hearing. 

Each person involved was asked to tell their story to Captain Bear and Robinson kept interrupting by pointing out the inaccuracies in their stories. Thirteen depositions were taken, but to no one’s surprise, no one ever asked Mrs. Jones for her version of the events. At one point, the stenographer interrupted the proceeding and stated, “Don’t you know that you have no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus?” 

Base officials wanted to court-martial Robinson, but his commanding officer, Colonel R.L. Bates, refused. The bigwigs got around this objection by transferring Robinson to another battalion and having his new commander sign the court-martial papers. 

What were the charges? 

Here’s the list: 

  • Insubordination 
  • Disturbing the peace 
  • Drunkenness 
  • Conduct unbecoming of an officer 
  • Insulting a civilian woman 
  • Refusing to obey the lawful laws of a superior officer. 

Robinson realized that he was in big, big trouble, so he appealed to the NAACP, but they had their hands full. They were swamped with requests from black soldiers across the country who had been being unfairly convicted during the war, so they didn’t have the resources to help defend Robinson. They did offer him some legal advice, but that’s all they could offer. 

Word quickly spread around the base that Jackie Robinson had been court-martialed.  Keep in mind that it’s one thing to court-martial a black person in the South at this time, but it was another thing to do so to a well-respected sports celebrity like Jackie Robinson.  

The military realized that they had a big hot potato on their hands, and they had to do something about it. They needed to quickly bury this somehow before the case reached trial. Magically, all of the charges related to the bus incident were dropped. 

Robinson was now only charged with the two lesser accusations of insubordination related to the events at the guardhouse. This may have seemed like an advantage, but it turned out not to be because there would be no mention of the events that led up these charges at trial. Robinson was no longer on trial for refusing to move to the back of the bus. He was now on trial for what happened at the guardhouse. 

And this is where having a very good lawyer comes in handy. 

Robinson secured the services of Captain William A. Cline, who did a great job at pointing out the many inconsistencies that were made by each witness as they took the stand to offer up their testimonial. 

While Cline was not allowed to bring up anything related to the bus incident during the trial, he skillfully manipulated and managed to introduce enough evidence to show that Robinson had been repeatedly subjected to racial hostility by nearly all those people involved. 

After all the testimony was heard, Robinson was acquitted of all the charges. He was finally in the clear.  

Jackie Robinson now wanted out of the military. He knew that there was no career there for him. 

He told them that he was no longer willing to sign away his rights of compensation for any injuries that he may receive while in the military. Basically, he used his limited-service classification from his bad ankle as a means of receiving an early discharge, which took effect in November 1944. Robinson was officially done with his military career. 

I’ll bring this story to a close without telling you about the remainder of his life.  There is certainly a lot to tell, which includes his historic baseball career, but all of that is very well documented. 

I can’t help but wonder what would have become of Jackie Robinson if he had been found guilty and dishonorably discharged. Most likely, his life would have taken a very, very different path. 

Useless? Useful? I’ll leave that for you to decide. 

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