Military Years

In April 1942, when Jackie Robinson reported for duty in Los Angeles after being drafted, his name was already well-known for his distinguished athletic career at UCLA. Still, fame did not dismiss one from the draft.

Ft. Riley, Kansas & Officer Candidate School

In April 1942, when Jackie Robinson reported for duty in Los Angeles after being drafted, his name was already well-known for his distinguished athletic career at UCLA.  Still, fame did not dismiss one from the draft.

In the Army, Jackie further developed his courage and know-how in challenging the injustices of racism, for although the military had begun to integrate some of its facilities and programs, plenty of prejudice could be found among its ranks, and formal policy rarely went above “separate but equal.” Furthermore, official War Department documents labeled black soldiers as undisciplined and inferior in almost every way to their white counterparts.  This attitude explains the fact that although Uncle Sam drafted more than 800,000 African-Americans, very few became officers and most were kept out of combat.

For Corporal Jack Robinson of Ft. Riley, Kansas, this was unacceptable.  His education, character, and superior performance, he felt, earned him and many others the right to a commission.  The Ft. Riley command, however, believed differently and rejected or delayed Officer Candidate School requests filed by black soldiers.  Never one to back down from a fight, Jackie went not to an officer, but a corporal.  This corporal, though, brought fame and connections with him when he enlisted.  Joe Louis, boxing’s heavyweight champion of the world, just happened to be stationed at Ft. Riley.

Robinson and others asked Louis if he might gain the attention of his friend Truman Gibson, a civilian aide to the secretary of war charged with investigating complaints filed by black soldiers.  Gibson, an African-American born in Atlanta, Georgia, came to know Joe Louis while practicing law in Chicago.  Louis notified his friend of the issue, and in 1943, Jackie Robinson and several other African-American soldiers at Ft. Riley received their commissions.  The command appointed Robinson as a platoon leader and a morale officer.  Knowing that Jim Crow policies were at the heart of black soldiers’ low morale, he focused on attacking segregationist rules.  He enjoyed some victories, such as obtaining more seats for black soldiers and family members at the post exchange snack area, and he proved that he did not fear officers of higher rank – or anyone for that matter – when they were on the side of Jim Crow.

In addition to the “typical” inequities, Jackie faced challenges because of his athleticism.  Many drafted soldiers of similar talent found themselves playing sports for the duration of the war, as post commanders loaded their teams with the most talented in an effort to beat colleges and competing stations’ teams.  When he went to try out for Ft. Riley’s baseball team, an officer told him he had to play for the post’s black team, a team that did not exist.  Few knew of Robinson’s baseball ability; more knew him as a football star, so it comes as no surprise that the Ft. Riley command offered him a position on the football team.  Jackie learned, however, that some teams would not play a team with a black player on it, and that the command had no intention of standing up to such protests.  Exasperated over the baseball brush-off and now this revelation, Lt. Robinson refused.  A colonel reminded the young officer that he could be ordered to play, but Jackie held his ground and never donned the Ft. Riley uniform.

Court Martial

In 1944, Lt. Robinson changed stations. Assigned to the 761st Tank Battalion at Ft. Hood, Texas, Jackie and other black soldiers found a life much grimmer than they experienced at any other post. The command at Ft. Hood upheld much stricter Jim Crow policies and the neighboring towns offered no safe haven for the locally-stationed black soldiers. Jackie, aware of official Army policy as to what could and could not be segregated, challenged anyone who might go against orders. On July 6, 1944, eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, Lt. Jack Robinson challenged a hard-headed bus driver who thought white meant right. This challenge threatened not only Jackie’s military career, but also could have put him in prison.

Early that July, Robinson found himself in the hospital hoping to obtain a waiver for an ankle injury. He needed the waiver in order to go overseas with his tank unit. On July 6, he decided to get out and travel by bus the thirty miles back to Ft. Hood’s officer’s club where he might find his friends from the 761st. Upon arrival he learned that the unit was away and engaged in training. Jackie headed back to the bus stop where he happened upon the wife of fellow black officer Gordon Jones. Mrs. Jones lived along the return route to the hospital, so the two boarded the same bus.

Mrs. Jones was fair-skinned and could be mistaken for white, and a black man in the company of a white woman often enraged residents of the Jim Crow South. When the two sat in the middle of the bus, people began to stare. Jackie, deep into an explanation of his ankle predicament, did not initially notice the stares or the original comments of the bus driver. The driver, Milton Reneger, angered even more by not being heard, got out of his seat, went to Jackie, and ordered him to get to the back of the bus. Robinson refused; official regulations stated that there was to be no more segregation on military vehicles. Reneger returned to the driver’s seat but not without informing Jackie that there would be trouble at the last stop.

When they stopped at the transfer point, where riders went from a military bus to a city one, Reneger jumped off quickly and met with the dispatcher who was undoubtedly waiting for the their arrival. As Jackie stepped off, Milton Reneger, using racially derogatory insults, pointed Robinson out as the troublemaker. The Military Police were called in and Jackie agreed to go to the MP station to straighten the matter out. Although the transporting MP offered the necessary military courtesy, once at the station, Jackie was subjected to additional racist smears, and it became clear that trouble lay ahead.

The Army formally charged Lt. Jack Robinson with numerous violations of military law including drunkenness, a charge particularly insulting to someone who did not drink alcoholic beverages. Other charges included failing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer and insubordination. Once charged, protocol requires that an arrested soldier’s commanding officer approve the court martial orders. When Jackie’s commander refused to do so, officials transferred the lieutenant to another unit whose commander signed the order.

Robinson wrote Truman Gibson about the court martial and also contacted the NAACP. The “Negro press,” consisting of African-American newspapers such as the popular Pittsburgh Courier, began publishing the story and contacting the Ft. Hood command asking for details. With all of the attention, Army officials became worried about widespread bad press. Recent incidents of racism directed at Joe Louis and another famous boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson, were also hitting newsstands. The court martial, then, was to be a fair one. Charges were examined more closely and adjusted, and Robinson’s appointed attorney, Captain William Cline, performed expertly. His cross-examination of the prosecution’s witnesses exposed the many holes in their testimony and proved that Lt. Robinson had acted appropriately when faced with such a palpable racist environment. Jackie was found not guilty on all charges.

As a result of the court martial, Robinson wanted out of the military and wrote the Adjutant General that because of his bad ankle, he was better suited to civilian life. The Army seemed more than happy to oblige Jackie, and by November 1944, Lieutenant Jack Robinson received an honorable discharge and reentered civilian life.

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