Capacity for Courage
Written by Talmage Boston
Cover courtesy of Stackpole Books
To carry the hopes of 10 million people on one’s back requires an extraordinary level of courage. Jackie Robinson definitely showed he had it when he broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, though his capacity for demonstrating courage was truly a lifetime process. Growing up in California, he encountered problems with white neighbors as a child, white police officers as a teenager, and white teammates and opponents as a college athlete. Dealing with those conflicts no doubt elevated his potential courage level to the point where he could fearlessly confront the much more serious racial obstacles he faced when his military service commenced four months after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As detailed in Michael Lee Lanning’s solid new book, The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson: The Baseball Legend’s Battle for Civil Rights During World War II (Stackpole Books, 2020), when he joined the U.S. Army in 1942, Robinson soon found himself in the middle of several non-battlefield conflicts caused entirely by racism. Entering the war, Black troops were segregated into separate units and barracks; faced seating discrimination at military base eateries; were not allowed to enter Officer Candidate School, or OCS; and could ride on Army buses only in the back rows.
With Black soldiers fighting and dying early on in World War II, change in our armed forces’ racial practices had to come, and Robinson helped drive and accelerate the change. First, he persuaded his base’s PX manager to expand the amount of seating for Black soldiers and their guests at the snack bar.
Next, having been a nationally renowned football star at UCLA, he locked arms with his Fort Riley compadre Joe Louis (the reigning heavyweight champion) and together they stood up for the rights of Black enlisted men to join the officers’ ranks. Largely due to the two athletes’ efforts, by November 1942, African Americans began enrolling in OCS. Not surprisingly, in January 1943, Robinson became a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
The issue of seating on Army buses came to a head in Central Texas and is at the heart of Lanning’s book. In April 1944, 2nd Lt. Robinson was transferred to Camp Hood (now Fort Hood) near Killeen, where he became a platoon leader in the all-Black 761st Tank Battalion. Two months later, the Army moved him to McCloskey General Hospital (now Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Medical Center) in Temple for extended treatment of a recurring ankle injury.
On the evening of July 6, 1944, Robinson rode a commercial bus from Temple to the Camp Hood central bus station and then took an Army bus to the Black officers club. There he spent two hours socializing with friends, though he consumed no alcohol since throughout his life, he never drank.
At 10 p.m., he started his return trip to McCloskey, getting on an Army bus outside the officers club that was to take him back to the central bus station. When he got on, he sat beside a Black female friend who was sitting in a middle row. Robinson chose his seat knowing the Army was in the process of implementing a new regulation that would eliminate the longtime practice of requiring African Americans to sit at the back of every bus on military property.
Eleven years before Rosa Parks made her historic stand in Montgomery, Alabama, 2nd. Lt. Robinson refused to leave his seat when the white driver ordered him to move to the back row. A heated verbal exchange ensued, and after the bus arrived at its destination, he was taken to Camp Hood’s military police station for questioning.
There, the strife escalated when white soldiers aggressively interrogated and demeaned Robinson. These events led to his being charged not with anything that happened on the bus but with allegedly having shown disrespect toward and having disobeyed orders from an officer during the interrogation. A week later, the initial charge sheet for his alleged misconduct contained sworn statements from 13 white people, and soon thereafter, a court-martial was ordered.
The trial took place in front of a nine-officer tribunal on the afternoon of August 2, 1944. Conviction required a two-thirds majority, meaning that if Robinson received four votes, he would be found not guilty.
The proceeding lasted a little over four hours. His Army-appointed trial counsel satisfied Robinson through his competent handling of the case. The white presiding officer excluded all evidence of what had occurred on the Army bus (which would have explained Robinson’s heightened intensity during the interrogation), such that the testimony at trial was limited only to what happened at the military police station. After the prosecution presented its case, Robinson testified on his own behalf, and his lawyer called two officers as character witnesses. When the evidence closed, the panel didn’t take long to deliberate, and by 6 p.m., the nine court members found the defendant not guilty.
Lanning spent more than 20 years in the military and participated in several courts-martial. His experience helps him explain military justice procedures, assess witnesses’ credibility, and draw conclusions about the trial’s impact, which he summarizes as follows:
The court-martial of Jackie Robinson serves as a good example of the racism of the period and at the same time exhibits the efforts of the army to reach a degree of fairness. Although tried for offenses caused by, or at least influenced by, racism, justice was served with the verdict of not guilty on all charges.
Robinson stood his ground and advanced justice every time he confronted inequality throughout his military career. After being honorably discharged in November 1944, he had gained mental toughness that surely enhanced his capacity for having the courage needed to carry the hopes of all African Americans on his back two-and-a-half years later when as the starting first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, he broke baseball’s color barrier on April 15, 1947. TBJ
is a partner in Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton and also a baseball historian who lives in Dallas.