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The Court-martial of Jackie Robinson

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On the afternoon of Tuesday, April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field before a crowd of 26,623 spectators that included 14,000 African-Americans, Brooklyn Dodger Jack “Jackie” Roosevelt Robinson took his position at first base. In his three at bats, he reached first on a throwing error, hit into a double play, hit a sacrifice fly, and scored one run in a 5-3 win over the Boston Braves. Robinson’s performance was not particularly noteworthy – according to a New York Times sports reporter, the real story of the game was the return of star player “Pistol Pete” Reiser, an injury-prone center fielder who went two-for-two, scoring three runs (Robinson didn’t get mentioned by name until line 38, though he did appear in a photo). While that reporter cannot be faulted for emphasizing Reiser’s performance over that of Robinson’s, he did err in not observing that Robinson’s performance was secondary to his presence on the field. On that day, Robinson crossed the color barrier that had prevented African-Americans from playing major league baseball, and made history.

“I don’t want any unfavorable publicity for myself or the Army but I believe in fair play and I feel I have to let some one in on the case.”

 – Lt. Jack “Jackie” R. Robinson, July 16, 1944, in a letter to Truman Gibson, assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson

In his 10-year career with the Dodgers, during which he primarily played second base, Robinson compiled a line of .311/.409/.474 and played in six World Series, helping the Dodgers win it in 1955. He was a six-time All-Star, 1947 Rookie of the Year (the award’s inaugural year), 1949 National League MVP, and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his jersey number, 42. In 1997, Major League Baseball (MLB) retired his number, the only player so honored in any sport. Every year on April 15, MLB celebrates Jackie Robinson Day by having every player in the majors wear the number 42.

Jackie Robinson

Page 1 of orders pertaining to the court-martial of Jackie Robinson. National Archives photo

Born in Georgia and raised in Southern California, Robinson was a star athlete in high school and college, earning letters in track, football, basketball, and baseball. In 1941, just short of graduation, he left UCLA to coach and play semi-professional football.

In 1942 Robinson was drafted. Robinson was intelligent, educated, confident, articulate, displayed admirable leadership ability – everything the Army wanted in its citizen soldiers, but for one thing: Jackie Robinson was black.

In America during World War II, minorities, particularly African-Americans, fought two wars: against the Axis and against racial discrimination. Within the Army, the general attitude was that black soldiers were mentally deficient, undisciplined, had bad morals, and were cowardly. Robinson soon found himself on a moral collision course.

It started at Fort Riley, Kan., where Robinson applied to Officer Candidate School. After experiencing repeated delays, he sought the help of Cpl. Joe Louis, the former heavyweight boxing champion, also stationed in Fort Riley. Louis wrote to his friend Truman Gibson, who at the time was an assistant to William H. Hastie, a civilian aide serving as a racial affairs adviser to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. In 1943, Robinson and several other black soldiers received their overdue commissions as second lieutenants.

In 1944, Lt. Robinson was assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion stationed at Camp (later Fort) Hood, Texas. Camp Hood had a notorious reputation for its strict segregation and the racist hostility of the nearby towns. On July 6, 1944, eleven years before Rosa Parks, Robinson refused a civilian white bus driver’s order to move to the back of the bus. Furious, the driver threatened trouble.

When the bus reached its terminus, the driver told the dispatcher in language filled with racial slurs that Robinson was a troublemaker. A crowd soon gathered. Military police were contacted and Robinson agreed to go with them and settle the matter. But instead of impartial questioning, Robinson found himself subjected to verbal abuse, which he angrily challenged. Robinson, a non-drinker, was brought up on multiple charges, including insubordination and, absurdly, drunkenness.

Facing an all-but-certain kangaroo court-martial, Robinson and others contacted Gibson, the NAACP, and publishers in the Negro press, seeking to spotlight the unfair treatment. With the Army already embarrassed by a racial incident involving soldier boxers Louis and “Sugar Ray” Robinson, Fort Hood headquarters soon found itself in the middle of a firestorm of unwanted attention and publicity. When the court-martial convened less than a month later, all but two of the charges had been dropped, and even those were modified. Robinson’s attorney, Capt. William Cline, was able to expertly poke holes in prosecution witnesses’ testimonies and prove that Robinson had acted appropriately in a racially charged environment. The jury found him not guilty on all charges.

Jackie Robinson

Page 2 of orders pertaining to the court-martial of Jackie Robinson. National Archives photo

The experience soured Robinson on the Army and, citing a chronic ankle injury, he wrote to the Adjutant General requesting he be discharged. The Army seemed happy to honor the request, for in November 1944, he received an honorable discharge.

Ironically, the bad experience probably saved his life. The 761st Tank Battalion was deployed to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and by war’s end had suffered a high rate of casualties.

Ironically, the bad experience probably saved his life. The 761st Tank Battalion was deployed to Europe, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and by war’s end had suffered a high rate of casualties. It’s not unreasonable to believe that, given his strength of character and leadership abilities, Robinson would have been one of those casualties.

 

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...