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How the court-martial of Jackie Robinson nearly derailed his baseball career

An interview with Michael Lee Lanning, the author of the book ‘The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson’

Jackie Robinson is known for many things. Breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball. Winning numerous awards, including the inaugural rookie of the year award and the National League Most Valuable Player award. Becoming a World Series champion. Being a trailblazer in the civil rights movement.

But one of the lesser-known moments in Robinson’s life may have been its most pivotal, one that could have derailed his prominent and society-changing baseball career before it even began.

On the evening of July 6, 1944, exactly one month after American troops invaded Normandy, France, 2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson boarded a military bus to return to McCloskey General Hospital, located near the Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) Army base in Killeen, Texas.

Once aboard, Robinson sat down in a seat near the middle of the bus, next to a woman he knew. Moments later, the white driver came storming back to where the two were seated, demanding that Robinson move to the back of the bus.

At the time, public transportation in America was still heavily segregated – the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, initiated by Rosa Parks’ refusal to move to the back of a bus, was another 11 years away. But, due in part to the actions of Black boxers Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, at that time in 1944, the Army was in the process of enacting War Department Order No. 97, which would essentially desegregate government-operated forms of transportation for service members.

Once the bus reached the station, the driver allegedly called Robinson the N-word, which started a confrontation. When two military police (MP) officers arrived on the scene, Robinson was still angry about the racial slur, and in a fit of rage, constantly disrupted the MP’s investigation of the incident, including the interviews of witnesses.

What seemed like a simple incident quickly ballooned into Robinson being tried in a general court-martial, which is reserved for the most severe offenses in the armed forces. He was originally charged on five counts: vulgar language toward two civilians, abusive language in a “public space” (the bus station), disrespect of a commanding officer and disobeying of a direct order. (All but the latter two charges were later dropped.)

At the trial a month later, on Aug. 2, Robinson was found not guilty by the nine-person court after less than five hours.

Three weeks later, Robinson filed his retirement papers with the Army and was honorably discharged in November 1944. Two and a half years later, Robinson signed a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Had Robinson been convicted, he could have been dismissed from the Army and/or imprisoned, and the stain of a conviction could have prevented him from ever being considered for playing in the majors.

Michael Lee Lanning, the author of the book The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson: The Baseball Legend’s Battle for Civil Rights During World War II, which was published in February 2020, spoke with The Undefeated about Robinson’s military career, the court-martial and how Robinson succeeded at trial.

This Q&A has been edited and condensed.

How did you come across the court-martial of Jackie Robinson?

It came about really offhanded. I was doing research for another book and I ran into a footnote that mentioned about his court-martial. And of course I was well aware of Jackie Robinson, well aware of court-martials because I spent 20 years in the Army. But, I don’t like learning things I didn’t know that I felt I should, so I did a little research and then I found that there was a pretty good size chunk of documents in the national archives on Jackie. And then I found out the FBI had investigated him from about 1946 till the time he died, and I was able to get the archives out of the FBI as well.

So I knew it had to be something very important. And then I read that he was court-martialed for failure to go to the back of the bus, and that just, of course, set off all kinds of signals on me. I looked into it. He actually was not court-martialed for not going to the back of the bus, he was court-martialed for insubordination to an MP and another officer.

I guess the question comes that you will ask, or may not ask, is what is a white boy from Texas doing writing about Black people, is that correct?

I wasn’t, but now that you say it …

I grew up in West Texas on a remote ranch. Never saw any Blacks until I got to school. They were brought into our school, bused from the outer places, put on the oldest bus that they had, and then bused 20 more miles to the nearest colored school. … We hear the word systemic racism today. It was there. I grew up in an absolutely segregated environment.

So after my writing career took off, I got interested in writing about African Americans and the military. You got to write what you know, and the military is what I knew. I am of the opinion like a lot of people now that resent, or at least object to, people writing outside of their race or outside of their expertise. But, in this case, I know the military. I know court-martials. I know a little bit about baseball and I thought that that would come in.

There’s a quote from Jackie in the book that reads, ‘I was in two wars. One against a foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.’ Do you think Jackie recognized the contradiction of fighting against racism in World War II while being treated like a second-class citizen in America in the service?

Yeah. It was a very common phrase at that time, for Double V: victory over [the] Axis and victory over racism. He understood it. He always talked with pride about his time in the military, and he was very proud of being an officer, which of course it was a very small minority [who] were able to get to make officer. I think it was important to him … and I try to show in the book that all the things that have been written about Jackie Robinson, the real informative part is not him breaking the color barrier. His time in the Army and that court-martial was a real pivotal point to him discovering that you could stand up for your rights, and you could fight for them and you could win.

There’s so much difference in the institutional racism that we had in the ’40s than we have today; well, not institutional, just out-and-out racism that is still very much here today, but it was much more prevalent and much more open during that time. Now, of course, the military, anytime you take a look at African Americans in the military, they were never welcomed. They never had their arms opened until they were needed. And when I say needed, I mean when the white casualties got so high or when they needed the numbers or when they needed people, that’s when they started letting them in.

You spoke of how Jackie spoke fondly of his time in the military. Outside of this incident at Fort Hood, what was life like for Jackie as a Black soldier at both Fort Riley and Fort Hood?

Fort Riley was when he came there as an enlisted man, and he found out about Officer Candidates School, and he ran into Joe Louis, who was a sergeant who basically went around from post to post doing exhibition boxing matches and that sort of thing. But he met Jackie because he knew of Jackie from his football reputation in California and they became friends and Joe Louis helped him get into Officer Candidates School. From there, when he went to Fort Hood, he was in probably the elite unit of African Americans, an armory unit that was all-Black, except of course the white officers. They did have some Black officers, but the commander was white.

I think the court-martial was a real turning point. And then it showed him that the system was wrong, but the system could be right at the same time. And then by working within the system that he could advance himself. And then of course he started recognizing that shortly thereafter, he could advance the race as well.

Legally speaking, was Jackie in the wrong with the two things that he was charged with?

I tried to put myself in different positions of the different people in it. If a lieutenant had come to me and talked to me apparently the way he [Robinson] did, he was not, I don’t think, legally disrespectful. But he was not proper. If I’d been a captain, [and] a lieutenant talked to me that way, I’d … probably call him to attention and just chewed his ass and told him, ‘Get your ass straight. Don’t talk to me that way, lieutenant.’ But what happened is that the officer didn’t treat Jackie as a fellow officer. He treated him as a Black man, a Black soldier, the way I read it. So I think the trouble started not because Jackie did anything really wrong. It started because he was … angry about not being treated as an officer.

Once that happened there was the military police captain and a duty officer, and neither one treated him with the respect that he deserved as a fellow officer; even though he was junior, [they] still treated a fellow officer differently than they would for, say, an enlisted man. But the only person that can court-martial you is your commander; he’s the person that’s got to sign it. And there’s things in the book about his commander refusing to sign it, and he [Robinson] was transferred to another unit.

There are three types of court-martials, with general being the most severe. What role, if any, did Jackie’s race and the race of his accusers play a part in the initial charges of a general court-martial?

All of the witnesses and the people who gave depositions were white, with the exception of the officer’s wife who he’d sat down with on the bus. The white witnesses were a real variety of people. And in reading the court-martial you’ll see one is just absolute, totally racist. Made up some things that Jackie said. He’s the person that they’d called Jackie the N-word and then denied that he had. But another white soldier stood up and said, ‘Yeah, he said that.’

With a nine-man court-martial, they would have had to get six people to vote for conviction and he was not. But we don’t know what the vote was either. It may have been a 5-4 or it may have been 9-0. We don’t know.

Rosa Parks was 11 years after this. Jackie was a well-known collegiate athlete at the time and was a Black serviceman. Why did his court-martial not have the same effect of Rosa Parks or any other people involved in the civil rights movement?

No. 1, Rosa Parks was – I’ll use the word orchestrated. It just didn’t happen. There were a lot of things behind it. Jackie wrote [to] the NAACP asking for help and they wrote back, ‘We’re just too busy to help.’

The biggest question, another one that’s really unanswered is: When did Jackie come to the attention of Branch Rickey, and did Branch Rickey know about the court-martial?

Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt that he did because he spent a tremendous amount of money, in 1940 dollars at least, trying to determine who he was going to get to break the color barrier. And I think the court-martial was a negative and a positive. Saying a person’s been court-martialed, even if they’re found innocent, is almost a mark against you. But it was also because he was acquitted and … I think he found out how well Jackie handled himself was a reason they called them.

If for some reason baseball had not been integrated and Jackie Robinson refused to go to the back of the bus, say, in 1952, or let’s say he did break the color barrier and then refused to go to the back of the bus when the team was in St. Louis site in the 1950s, we would not have heard of Rosa Parks. It’d have been all Jackie Robinson.

What do you think would have happened if Jackie had been convicted?

There’s about a 4-inch-thick book called [The Manual for Courts-Martial], and it’s got each crime and then the maximum punishment. General court-martials can sentence you to death. But obviously you wouldn’t do it in this type of instance. Probably if he had been convicted, he would have probably been dismissed from the service. Once you’re commissioned as an officer, you do not get a dishonorable discharge, you’d be dismissed from the service. And probably he would’ve been dismissed from the service, fined whatever money; he might have got a couple of months in the stockades if some general was trying to make a point.

Today, I don’t think it’s as frowned upon as it was then, but … if he’d been convicted, we wouldn’t have heard anything more about it. It’s probably doubtful he’d even been able to play in the Negro Leagues.

In the book, you said Jackie barely mentions the court-martial in his autobiographies. What do you make of that?

I think it’s simple: If you’re writing your bio … [the] about-the-author in the back, you’ll put in, ‘Served honorably in the United States Army.’ You don’t want to put in there, ‘Served honorably in the United States Army and was acquitted in a general court-martial.’ Because just by saying general court-martial – you know the old thing: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire; if accused, you’re probably guilty. I think it was just something to be avoided. He would often speak of being proud of his military service, and proud of being an officer, but he rarely brought up the court-martial at all, and then went through it real quickly when he did.

Martenzie Johnson is a senior writer for Andscape. His favorite cinematic moment is when Django said, "Y'all want to see somethin?"