Jackie Robinson Court Martialed for Fighting Racism

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Although he is best known as the baseball player who broke the color barrier, Jackie Robinson was also a soldier. He served as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army during WWII. While stationed at Ft. Hood, Robinson had an altercation with a bus driver that lead to a court martial. The experience altered the course of Robinson’s military career, and ultimately changed the world. 

The Football Star Gets Drafted 

Even before he broke baseball’s color barrier, Jackie Robinson was famous. While a student at UCLA, he played basketball, track, baseball, and was an All-American football star. After he was drafted, he used his stellar reputation, and his friendship with boxer Joe Louis, to persuade the Army to commission more black officers. 

Robinson was promoted to second lieutenant, and soon became his unit’s morale officer. One of the things having the biggest negative impact on morale were Jim Crow laws that prevented black soldiers from being treated fairly. Robinson objected when he felt his men were not being treated well. 

Robinson himself was treated poorly when he tried to join the base’s all-white baseball team. He was turned away, and encouraged to play football instead. Robinson refused to play football since he was not allowed to play baseball. According to records in the National Archives, “When his commanding officer reminded the lieutenant that he could be ordered to play, Robinson agreed that was so but remarked that he could not be ordered to play well.”

Court Martialed 

Robinson was eventually transferred to Ft. Hood, which had a reputation for being an incredibly racist base. Even the buses on the base were segregated, which was against military orders. 

One day, Robinson boarded a bus with the light-skinned wife of a fellow officer. When they sat in the middle of the bus, the driver ordered Robinson to move to the back. He refused. When Robinson got off the bus, so did the driver, who called for backup. The crowd that gathered got into a shouting match, and Robinson was called the n-word several times. 

Robinson was taken into custody and charged with insubordination, disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer.

His first defense attorney recused himself because he had not “developed arguments against segregation” that were necessary to defend Robinson. But he did arrange for Robinson to be represented by a young, white attorney named Lt. William Cline who handled the case well. Cline got some charges dismissed, convinced a witness to admit Robinson was called the n-word, and used cross-examination to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. 

The nine-judge panel that heard the case quickly and unanimously found Robinson “not guilty of all specifications and charges.”

Changing the Course of History

Robinson later wrote that his acquittal at Ft. Hood, “…was a small victory, for I had learned that I was in two wars, one against the foreign enemy, the other against prejudice at home.” 

Though he never followed his unit overseas, he fought that second war for the rest of his life. Interestingly enough, had he stayed with his unit, he might have been killed or injured in the Battle of the Bulge and never played Major League Baseball. 

Inspiration for Us All 

Robinson is not the only soldier who has gotten in trouble for standing up to bigotry and fighting for his rights. There is a fine line between calling out bad actors and insubordination, and we help soldiers walk it all the time. Attorney Ryan Coward is not afraid to take on clients who want to challenge the system. If you are facing a court-martial that you believe is unjust, don’t hesitate to contact us.

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