On a sweltering August day in 1944 at Camp Hood, Texas, nine US Army officers deliberated the fate of a man who would go on to become one of America’s greatest sports legends and a leading voice of the civil rights movement. Second Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson stood accused in general court-martial of insubordination and conduct disrespectful to his superior officer under the Army’s Articles of War. Had he been found guilty, would he have stepped onto Ebbets Field in Brooklyn less than three years later, thereby breaking baseball’s color barrier? Would segregation have persisted in sports, in schools, and in American society longer than it did? With his reputation and his freedom hanging in the balance, Jackie Robinson’s strength of character would be tested, but he emerged victorious with a full acquittal and a new resolve to stand up to the discrimination that was rife within every facet of American life.
Born on January 31, 1919, Jackie Robinson was the youngest of five children born to Mallie and Jerry Robinson, sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia. When Jackie’s father left the family a year later, Mallie moved the family to Pasadena, California, and raised her brood as a single parent. As the only black family on their block, they faced discrimination—burning crosses on the lawn, death threats, and police harassment—but Jackie rose above it to become a star athlete in not one or two but four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. At UCLA, Robinson became the first athlete to letter in four varsity sports and in 1941 was named to the All-American football team. Later that year, despite his athletic success, he left UCLA just shy of graduation due to financial difficulties.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States’ entry into World War II, the nation required an unprecedented level of contribution from its citizens for its defense. President Roosevelt ordered that black men should register for the draft, but conceding to certain prevailing social norms, decided that the military would remain racially segregated. On April 3, 1942, Robinson was drafted into the Army. He reported for military duty at an induction center in Los Angeles and was assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas. Thus, Jackie Robinson became one of the 1.2 million African American men who served in World War II.
Initially, Robinson was assigned to a cavalry unit at Fort Riley. Soon after, he applied to Officer Candidate School (OCS), having all of the necessary qualifications to enroll. Official Army policy allowed for black officers to be trained in integrated facilities, but few had yet gained access. Robinson’s application was rejected and he was told, off the record, that blacks lacked the leadership ability to become officers. Undaunted, Robinson appealed to a higher power—heavyweight boxing champion of the world Joe Louis, also stationed at Fort Riley at the time. Louis arranged a meeting with Truman Gibson, the assistant civilian aide to the Secretary of Defense, and within a few days Robinson was enrolled in OCS. Upon completion of training, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant and was appointed acting morale officer for a company at Fort Riley.
For a segregated all-black company on an Army base in the Jim Crow South, morale was a challenge. African American soldiers were routinely subjected to inferior facilities and training, to limited access to transportation, and to verbal and sometimes physical mistreatment. Second Lt. Robinson took up one persistent complaint—the conditions at Fort Riley’s post exchange where only a few seats were designated for black soldiers—to the base provost marshal, Major Hafner. Upon hearing the complaint, Hafner replied, “I just want you to know that I don’t want my wife sitting close to any colored guy.” The provost marshal hung up during Robinson’s rather heated rebuttal, but he prevailed nonetheless in securing additional seats for black soldiers, though the post exchange remained segregated.
Robinson also clashed with his commanding officer over athletics. Renowned as a football all-star, Robinson was expected to join Fort Riley’s very competitive football team. His mind was set on baseball, however, and he went out for the team. Rejected in a humiliating fashion in front of the squad, the officer said, “You have to play for the colored team” (Fort Riley had no such team) and reminded Robinson that he could order him to play football. Robinson agreed but said that he could not be ordered to play well.
Soon thereafter, Robinson was transferred to the 761st Tank Battalion at Camp Hood (now Fort Hood), Texas, where conditions were no better. One of Robinson’s fellow black officers remarked, “Camp Hood was frightening.… Segregation there was so complete that I even saw outhouses marked White, Colored, and Mexican.” Nevertheless, Robinson’s performance impressed his commanding officer so much that even though he was on “limited service” because of an ankle injury he sustained playing football in junior college, the officer wanted him to go overseas with the battalion. Army medical authorities required an examination of his ankle to determine his fitness before they would approve. On June 21, 1944, Robinson was transferred to McCloskey Hospital in Temple, Texas, 30 miles east of Camp Hood, to undergo a battery of tests.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson traveled from McCloskey to Camp Hood’s colored officers’ club to socialize with friends. Some hours later, he hopped on an Army shuttle bus near the club to return to the hospital. He recognized Virginia Jones, the wife of a fellow African American lieutenant from the battalion, sitting in a middle row. He sat down next to her and the two chatted. After a few blocks, the bus driver peered back at them and, seeing a black officer sitting in the middle of the bus next to a woman he presumed to be white, yelled “Get to the back of the bus.”
Though race-based seating on public transportation was the epitome of segregation law during the Jim Crow era, by June 1944 the rules were different on military bases and other federal installations in the south. For practical reasons, the War Department ordered the desegregation of military buses. Robinson understood this and he refused to move, explaining to the driver, “The Army recently issued orders that there is to be no more racial segregation on any Army post. This is an Army bus operating on an Army post.” Other passengers soon joined in the simmering fracas, leveling racist taunts at Robinson. The bus driver said he would “make trouble for him” when they reached the station, and he made good on his threat. When they arrived at the bus transfer station, the station dispatcher appeared and, turning to the bus driver, asked, “Is this the n—– that’s been causing you trouble?”
Two military police officers arrived on the scene to take charge of the situation and asked Robinson to sit in their patrol vehicle. A soldier waiting at the bus station, Private First Class Ben Mucklerath, saw the commotion and approached the MPs asking if they had the “n—– lieutenant” in their car at which Robinson said “If you call me a n—– again, I'll break you in two.” The MPs brought Robinson to their headquarters for questioning. Pfc. Mucklerath was asked to return as well to act as eyewitness.
Capt. Peelor Wigginton, the officer on watch, was first to question Robinson. Then he began to take Mucklerath’s story and, when Robinson interrupted, he called for Capt. Gerald Bear, the camp’s assistant provost marshal, to take over the investigation. When Robinson overheard Wigginton briefing Bear, he complained that the account was not accurate. Capt. Bear barked back “Nobody comes into the room until I tell him.” Matters only became worse when Bear’s stenographer, Ms. Wilson, a local civilian, continually interrupted Robinson’s statement with questions of her own and interjected “Don’t you know you have no right sitting up there in the white part of the bus?” Robinson asked Bear if he had to be subjected to an interrogation by his secretary at which Ms. Wilson angrily left the room. Bear told Robinson he was “uppity and out to make trouble” and had him escorted back to McCloskey Hospital under guard.
On July 17, 1944, Robinson was formally charged with six distinct violations of the Articles of War: insubordination, disturbing the peace, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, and refusing to obey a lawful order of a superior officer. Robinson’s commanding officer, Colonel Paul Bates, believed that Capt. Bear had conducted an incompetent investigation and refused to sign the charges. [Bates would later distinguish himself by leading the 761st Tank Battalion into battle in World War II, the first African American battalion to do so.] A hasty transfer to the 758th Tank Battalion and a signature from its commander sealed Robinson’s fate. He was to be court-martialed in The United States v. 2nd Lieutenant Jack R. Robinson, 0-10315861, Cavalry, Company C, 758th Tank Battalion.
On the same day that charges were filed, a transcript preserved in Robinson’s military records of a telephone conversation between Col. Edward A. Kimball, Commander, 5th Armored Group, and Col. Walter D. Buie, Chief of Staff, XXIII Corps described the case against “a colored officer who got in trouble in connection with a bus” as “full of dynamite.” Ultimately, four of the charges against Robinson were eliminated. Those remaining to be adjudicated were purely military offenses and both involved interactions with Capt. Bear.
The trial by general court-martial began at 1345 at Camp Hood on August 2, 1944. For his defense, Robinson had been assigned 2nd Lt. William Cline, a young Southern lawyer who, as Robinson remembers, “had the decency to admit … he didn’t think he could be objective.” Cline recommended another young officer, 32-year-old 1st Lt. Robert Johnson, a lawyer from Bay City, Michigan, to lead the defense. Their skilled legal defense of 2nd Lt. Robinson exposed the racist undercurrent of the arrest and case against him. Under cross-examination, they exploited holes in Capt. Bear’s testimony. Bear admitted that he told Robinson that he could stand “at ease” during his questioning at headquarters and never gave clear instruction to the lieutenant, weakening the case for insubordination.
The climactic moment of Robinson’s defense came during the cross-examination of Pfc. Mucklerath, however. During the prosecution’s questioning, Mucklerath testified that he had never used a racial epithet referring to Robinson. Now defense counsel asked him if he remembered Robinson saying that if he “ever called him a n—– again he would break [Mucklerath] in two?” He responded that he did remember this. Counsel then asked him why Robinson would make such a statement if Mucklerath had not used this slur as he had earlier testified. He had no answer.
Transcripts of Mucklerath’s cross-examination provide a record of what followed:
Q – Do you deny that you went to the MP [Cpl. Elwood] on the truck at the bus station and said “Do you have the n—– lieutenant in the car”; do you deny that you made that statement?
A – At no time did I use the word “n—–.”
Q – You deny that you made that statement?
A – I never used the word “n—–” at any time, sir.
The defense next called Cpl. Elwood, asking him only one question, “Did [Pfc. Mucklerath] ever ask you at any time if you had a n—– lieutenant in your car?” Elwood answered straightforwardly, “Yes, sir, he did at the bus station.” The defense rested its case. They had exposed Mucklerath’s lie under oath and demonstrated that Robinson’s frustration at MP headquarters was precipitated by being called a racial slur.
Closing arguments are not preserved in the records, but in his autobiography Robinson remembered them this way: “My lawyer [Johnson] summed up the case beautifully by telling the board that this was not a case involving any violation of the Articles of War, or even of military tradition, but simply a situation in which a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a Negro they considered ‘uppity’ because he had the audacity to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and a Soldier.”
After four and a half hours of testimony, the court-martial tribunal composed of nine Army officers acquitted 2nd Lt. Robinson on all charges. Three years later, Robinson became one of the most famous athletes in history when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, racially integrating Major League Baseball for the first time. Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. notes of this accomplishment: “It is so easy for us to underestimate the enormous significance, both symbolically and politically, of Jackie Robinson’s integration of Major League Baseball. . . . [H]is courage and bravery played a major role in the history of integration, both on the field and throughout American society, and no history of the civil rights movement would be complete without noting Robinson’s major role, and according him a place of honor and immortality in African-American history because of it.”
Jackie Robinson was a strong voice for the civil rights movement off of the baseball diamond as well. A candid remark Robinson penned in a 1944 letter to Truman Gibson, the War Department’s civilian aide, reveals a sentiment that could describe all of his life experiences: "I don't mind trouble but I do believe in fair play and justice."
Erin Clancey is Director of Curatorial Services at The National WWII Museum and is responsible for the care and management of the Museum’s artifact, archival, oral history, library and digital collections as well as for the interpretation of collections through tours, programs, and exhibitions.