Was Jackie Robinson Court-Martialed?

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

Library of Congress
Library of Congress

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 Rampersad reprints Robinson’s statement about what happened next: “The bus driver asked me for my identification card. I refused to give it to him. He then went to the Dispatcher and told him something. What he told him I don’t know. He then comes back and tells the people that this nigger is making trouble. I told the driver to stop f—in with me, so he gets the rest of the men around there and starts blowing his top and someone calls the MP’s.” Robinson was placed under “arrest in quarters,” which meant that “he would be considered under arrest at the hospital, although without a guard. Robinson was then taken to the hospital in a police pickup truck.” A white officer would recall that Robinson “was handcuffed, and there were shackles on his legs. Robinson’s face was angry, the muscles on his face tight, his eyes half closed.”

Robinson was transferred to the 758th Tank Battalion on July 24, “where the commander signed orders to prosecute him.” On that day, he was arrested. Rampersad says that “At 1:45 in the afternoon on August 2, the case of The United States v. 2nd Lieutenant Jack R. Robinson, 0-10315861, Cavalry, Company C, 758th Tank Battalion, began.” Robinson’s fate was in the hands of nine men, eight of them white: “One was black; another had been a UCLA student [where Robinson had been an undergraduate]. Six votes were needed for conviction.”

Robinson faced two charges: “The first, a violation of Article of War No. 63, accused him of ‘behaving with disrespect toward Capt. Gerald M. Bear, CMP, his superior officer’ … The second charge was a violation of Article No. 64, in this case ‘willful disobedience of lawful command of Gerald M. Bear, CMP, his superior.’ ” Three other charges were dropped before the trial began. Testimony reveals how bravely Robinson had fought to defend himself on the evening of the incident, including reportedly saying quite heroically, “Look here, you son-of-a-bitch, don’t you call me no nigger!” After a four-hour trial, Robinson was exonerated: “Robinson secured at least the four votes (secret and written) needed for his acquittal. He was found ‘not guilty of all specifications and charges.’ “

Setting History in Motion

As the philosopher Cornel West put it in his introduction to Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, I Never Had It Made, “More even than either Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, or Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement, Jackie Robinson graphically symbolized and personified the challenge to a vicious legacy and ideology of white supremacy in American history,” a challenge, Cornel continued, that “remains incomplete, unfinished.” 

It is so easy for us to underestimate the enormous significance, both symbolically and politically, of Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball, today when so very many black athletes play such dominant roles in sports. Baseball was America’s “national pastime,” and it was also, accordingly, the ultimate bastion of white male dominance. If professional sports as a whole were to be desegregated — and to some extent, the larger society — this effort had to commence on the baseball field. To understand the even broader social and political import of what Robinson’s actions on the field initiated, we need only consider the chain reaction of crucial episodes in the history of the civil rights movement that unfolded almost immediately after his first season with the Dodgers.

First, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9982 on July 26, 1948, just over a year after Robinson faced his first pitcher at Ebbets Field, abolishing racial discrimination in the armed forces. It is certainly reasonable to assume that Truman’s timing was informed by Robinson’s successful integration of professional baseball. Truman’s desegregation of the military no doubt informed the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board decision desegregating public schools in 1954, which in turn informed the actions of Rosa Parks on her bus, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Out of the Montgomery Bus Boycott emerged the leadership role of the young Martin Luther King Jr.  Without Martin Luther King, Jr. there would have been no modern civil rights movement.