Was Jackie Robinson Court-Martialed?

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: His struggle for equality began even before he integrated baseball.

Library of Congress

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 26: Was Jackie Robinson court-martialed?

On April 15, 1947, at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, N.Y., Jack Roosevelt Robinson, at the age of 28, became the first African American to play for a major-league baseball team since the 1884 season, when Moses Fleetwood “Fleet” Walker played for the Toledo Blue Stockings between May 1 and Sept. 4. (William White, a student at Brown, played one game for the Providence Grays of the National League in 1879, hence technically breaking the color barrier.) Before a crowd of 26,623 spectators (of whom approximately 14,000 are thought to have been black), though he got no hits, Robinson scored a run to contribute to the Dodgers’ 5-3 victory over the Boston Braves. 

The rest, as they say, is history: During a relatively short career spanning only nine years, Robinson was Rookie of the Year in 1947, Most Valuable Player in 1949, took his team to the World Series six times (including one World Championship in 1955) and made the All-Star Team six times. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1962, and in an unprecedented gesture to his enormous historical significance and prowess as an athlete, Major League Baseball retired his number “42” in 1997, the first time this has been done for any athlete in any sport.

These are the facts of his baseball career, which kids my age knew by heart. But what virtually none of us knew back then, and many people don’t know today, is that Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson was actually court-martialed in 1944! Court-martials are military courts, usually consisting of a panel of commissioned officers who conduct a criminal trial. There are three types of courts-martial: Summary Court-Martial, Special Court-Martial and General Court-Martial. Robinson faced a General Court-Martial. 

Had he been found guilty, the whole course of black participation in professional baseball and every other professional sport, as well as the modern civil rights movement, most probably would have been profoundly affected adversely. But the circumstances of that court-martial only add to Robinson’s credentials as one of the true pioneers of the civil rights movement.

Standing his Ground

As detailed in the masterful Jackie Robinson: A Biography by Arnold Rampersad, on July 6, 1944, Robinson “became entangled in a dispute that threatened to end his military service in disgrace.” While riding on a military bus returning to a hospital from “the colored officers club,” Robinson sat next to Virginia Jones, the wife of one of his fellow officers. Jones looked white — at least the white bus driver thought so. After a few blocks, the driver abruptly ordered Robinson “to move to the back of the bus.” Robinson, justifiably outraged, refused. Among other things, he had read that segregation was no longer allowed on military buses (pdf) and proceeded to engage in a form of protest prefiguring a similar action by Rosa Parks 11 years later.