Jackie Robinson is often remembered as the first Black baseball player to break the color barrier and play Major League Baseball in the modern era. A few years before he made his baseball debut at Ebbets Field, his future was decided when he was court-martialed at Camp Hood in Texas. His crime? Standing up to racial prejudices in the United States Army. If he had been found guilty, history might be very different.
Jackie Robinson’s time in the Army
Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia, on January 31, 1919. He enrolled in UCLA after graduating from Pasadena Junior College in 1939. At UCLA, Robinson became the first UCLA athlete to win varsity letters in four different sports; baseball, track, basketball, and football.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s entrance into the Second World War, President Roosevelt ordered that black men should register for the draft. However, due to mainstream racial prejudices in the United States throughout the 1940s, it was decided that the military would remain racially segregated.
In April 1942, Jackie Robinson was drafted into the Army. He was assigned to a segregated cavalry located in Fort Riley, Kansas. Soon after his enlistment, Jackie Robinson applied to Officer Candidate School (OCS) as he had all the necessary qualifications to enroll.
Despite being qualified for Officer Candidate School, Robinson’s application was rejected. The Army’s official policy allowed black officers to be trained at integrated facilities, but very few had yet had this opportunity. After his application was rejected, Robinson appealed to heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, who was also stationed at Fort Riley. With the help of Joe Louis and Truman Gibson, an assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of War, Robinson was accepted to Officer Candidate School.
After completing Officer Candidate School, Robinson was reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas. Here he joined the 761st ‘Black Panthers’ Tank Battalion.
An experience slightly similar to Rosa Parks
As acting morale officer for a company at Fort Riley, it was not surprising that Robinson took it upon himself to reject many of the segregated practices at Fort Hood. Despite being a football star at UCLA, Robinson refused to join Fort Riley’s competitive football team if he couldn’t also play baseball on the Fort’s all-white baseball team. When his commanding officer reminded Robinson that he could be ordered to play football, Robinson reminded his commanding officer that he couldn’t be ordered to “play well.”
Jackie Robinson’s most significant act of resistance to the Army’s segregated policies came on July 6, 1944. Camp Hood, where Robinson was now stationed, had a terrible reputation among the black officers there. The post was completely segregated, and the nearby towns of Killeen and Temple were very unfriendly to black soldiers. It was difficult for black soldiers stationed at southern training camps such as Camp Hood to obtain transportation.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson was awaiting test results regarding an ankle injury he had been dealing with since he had been in junior college. Robinson had left the hospital to socialize with some friends. A few hours later, he hopped on an Army shuttle bus to return back to the hospital to get his test results.
Once on the bus, Jackie Robinson recognized Virginia Jones, the wife of a lieutenant from the 761st ‘Black Panthers’ Tank Battalion. He sat down beside her in the middle of the bus, and the two started chatting. After driving a few blocks, the bus driver yelled at Robinson, telling him to “Get to the back of the bus.”
Although public transportation in the deep south remained segregated during the Second World War, rules were different on military bases in the south. In March 1943, the War Department ordered the desegregation of recreation facilities on military bases. By mid-1944, the War Department had ordered all military buses to be operated in a non-discriminatory way. Jackie Robinson knew that military buses were supposed to operate in a non-segregated way, so he explained to the bus driver that “the Army recently issued orders that there is to be no more racial segregation on any Army post. This is an Army bus operating on an Army post.”
The driver and Jackie Robinson continued to argue once at Jackie’s designated stop. A crowd of onlookers – both civilian and military – had formed around Jackie and the bus driver. Two military officers arrived at the scene and brought Robinson to their headquarters for questioning.
Jackie Robinson continued to face racist and unfriendly remarks once at the headquarters. Robinson supposedly conducted himself in a “sloppy and contemptuous” way toward the individuals questioning him.
Robinson is charged with six violations
On July 17, 1944, Jackie Robinson was charged with six distinct violations of the Articles of War – insubordination, disturbing the peace, conduct unbecoming of an officer, insulting a civilian woman, drunkenness, and refusing to obey a lawful order of a superior officer.
Robinson’s commanding officer, Colonel Paul Bates, refused to authorize the charges so Jackie Robinson was transferred to the 785th Tank Battalion. The commanding officer of the 785th Tank Battalion signed off on the charges, sealing Robinson’s fate.
Four charges had been dropped by the time of Robinson’s court-martial in August 1944. His charges had also been reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. Although the dismissal of the more serious charges should have worked in Robinson’s favor, there was to be no mention of the encounter Robinson had on the bus – the event that caused his “insubordinate” behavior. Jackie Robinson was now on trial not for the incident on the bus, but for being “disrespectful” to commanding officers.
After four and a half hours of testimony, the court-martial tribunal composed of nine, white Army officers, acquitted Jackie Robinson on all charges. Luckily, Jackie Robinson and his lawyer were able to counter all the claims being made again Robinson.
After his acquittal, Jackie Robinson was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Kentucky. There he served as a coach for army athletics. He received an honorable discharge from the army in November 1944. Less than three years later, Jackie Robinson would once again resist segregation by integrating the MLB.