Jackie Robinson is well known as the man who broke Major League Baseball’s color barrier in 1947. His achievement is a touchstone of the Civil Rights movement, and the story of how Robinson was able to withstand the institutional and personal racism he faced during his years with the Brooklyn Dodgers has been documented in writing an on film. What may not be quite as well known, however, is that three years earlier, then Army Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was court martialed following an incident where he refused to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas – eleven years before Rosa Parks took her famous stand in Alabama.In his autobiography, I Never Had It Made, Robinson describes what occurred after he sat next to the light-skinned African-American wife of a fellow officer:
“The driver glanced into his rear-view mirror and saw what he thought was a white woman talking with a black second lieutenant. [The driver] became visibly upset, stopped the bus, and came back to order me to move to the rear. I didn’t stop talking, didn’t even look at him…I had no intention of being intimidated into moving to the back of the bus.”The driver eventually returned to his seat and continued the route, but continued to shout threats at Robinson. At the last stop, the driver ran off the bus and called the military police, who escorted the lieutenant to the duty officer.
Robinson was not afraid to stand up for himself, and he reacted strongly when asked questions like, “Don’t you know you’ve got no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus?” An argument ensued, and Robinson was charged with disrespecting a senior officer and failing to obey a direct command.Since Robinson had been nationally famous for his achievements as a college athlete (he had starred in football at UCLA and was the first person to letter in four different sports at the school) the Army brass might have been expected to quietly make his case go away. Yet the case was pursued. Robinson’s commanding officer, a Colonel Bates, knew that Robinson was a man of integrity who had been treated unfairly and refused to sign the court martial papers, but Robinson was in the middle of a transfer to a different battalion at the time of the incident and his new commander willingly signed the papers. Lt. Robinson’s fame did mean that if the powers that were in the Army wanted to avoid negative publicity, there would have to be a fair trial – a courtesy that might not have been afforded to an African-American of lesser stature in 1944.
Also, perhaps due to the high profile nature of the case, Robinson had other advantages. He wrote, “My first break was that the legal officer assigned to defend me was a Southerner who had the decency to admit to me that he didn’t think he could be objective. He recommended a young…officer who did a great job on my behalf.”In the end, a combination of Robinson’s testimony, his lawyer’s skill, and a glowing commentary on Robinson’s character by Colonel Bates resulted in an acquittal on all charges. As Robinson himself said, “…luckily there were some members of that court-martial board who had the honesty to realize what was going on.”
From Robinson’s comments, it is clear that he did not expect fair treatment, and that he considered it fortunate to receive an even break. It is frightening to think how many other African-Americans, who didn’t have the advantage of the public spotlight, may have been railroaded into unfair trials and undeserved punishments.Jackie Robinson was granted an honorary discharge from the Army shortly after his acquittal. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945. He then played a season with the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team before joining the Dodgers and changing professional sports forever. Following his baseball career, Robinson remained active in the Civil Rights movement. His status as a great American and an important historical figure is unquestioned. When the need arose for someone to stand up and challenge the racist status quo, Jackie Robinson was always willing to answer the call, but as he wrote, “…there is one irrefutable fact of my life which has determined much of what happened to me: I was a black man in a white world. I never had it made.”
A couple of links if you want to learn more:http://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2008/spring/robinson.html
More next week,Ben
2/18 Memory Day nominee: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist and scholar whose best novel, one amazing short story, and pioneering work of literary criticism might all be better than her (still plenty great) best-known novel.2/19 Memory Day nominees: A tie between Karen Silkwood, the nuclear power plant worker and activist whose inspiring life and mysterious death made her an ideal subject for one of the 1980s most interesting American Studies films; and Amy Tan, whose multigenerational, transnational American novels and non-fiction pieces on family, heritage, and identity I’d put right there with Morrison’s and every other 20th century great’s.
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