Nov. 17, 1999
The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson

by Justice Paul E. Pfeifer

The impending end of the century has produced, among other things, an abundance of "best of" lists. The best 100 movies of the century, the top 100 novels, the most important inventions, and so forth. ESPN, the cable sports network, has garnered its share of attention with a "Top 50 Athletes of the Twentieth Century" countdown.

Number fifteen on the list was Jackie Robinson. Jackie was an infielder for the Brooklyn Dodgers for a decade. Whether he would have been selected among the best athletes of the century for his baseball career alone is one of those debates that make sports – and top-50 lists – fun.

Robinson was an undeniably great player who had some of his best years stolen from him. He was a speedster who led his team to six World Series, won Rookie of the Year honors, an MVP award and was a six-time All-Star.

But it’s not because of his marvelous career that Jackie’s number 42 is retired in every major league ballpark. It’s because on a chilly afternoon in 1947 at Ebbets Field, Robinson took the diamond for the Dodgers to become the first black man to play in a major league baseball game in the modern era.

His stellar play – and moreover, his poise under fire – paved the way for baseball integration. As barriers broke down in baseball, so too did they begin to crumble in society at large. And while Jackie is best remembered for integrating major league baseball, an incident that occurred before his fame as a Dodger heralded his future as a warrior in the battle for civil rights.

Robinson was born into poverty in rural Georgia, but the family moved to Pasadena, California while he was still very young. Jackie’s athletic prowess was no fluke. His brother, Mack, finished second in the 200-meter dash at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The only man to finish ahead of him was Jesse Owens.

As a youngster, Jackie was a natural. He became a star running back for the UCLA football team, and a standout on the Bruins basketball and track teams. Ironically, although he became the first UCLA student to ever letter in four sports in the same season, baseball was his worst college sport.

These days, an athlete of Robinson’s caliber would have millions thrown at him by every major league. But for Robinson, there was no sports future -- professional football, baseball and basketball were off limits to blacks.

Shortly after his college days, America entered World War II, and Jackie was drafted. In the Army, as in most of America at the time, blacks suffered the indignation of segregation. Jim Crow laws – the name given to the laws that created whites only restaurants, hotels, restrooms and other segregation – held sway in the Army, too.

Jim Crow rules called for white officers to lead black men in their segregated outfits. But the necessities of war were beginning to change things. Jackie was accepted to an integrated Officer Candidate School and assigned to Camp Hood, in Texas. It was there that he became entangled in an incident that nearly ended his military career and the future that he didn’t know awaited him.

One evening, while boarding a camp bus into town, he dutifully began moving to the back, as blacks were required to do. On his way down the aisle, he saw the wife of a friend sitting mid-way back, and sat down with her.

After about five blocks, the driver, a white man, turned in his seat and ordered Jackie to move to the back of the bus. Robinson refused. The driver threatened to make trouble for him when the bus reached the station, but Jackie wouldn’t budge.

The exchanges between Robinson and the driver grew more heated. When the bus reached the station, another passenger, a white woman, told Jackie that she intended to press charges against him. Someone called the MP’s, and during the process of sorting out the bus incident, Jackie was treated rudely and was called a "nigger" by both the military personnel and civilians involved. Unbelievably, Jackie was arrested and faced a court martial.

The case against him, The United States v. 2nd Lieutenant Jack R. Robinson, was heard by nine men – one was black – with six votes needed for acquittal. By the time of the hearing, the charges against Robinson were all for his alleged misbehavior at the station – after the incident on the bus.

He was accused of disrespect to a superior officer, and of disobeying orders. Most of the witnesses’ testimony ran counter to Robinson’s account of events, but inconsistencies appeared in their stories under cross-examination.

The defense called a series of character witnesses. All of Jackie’s superior officers, who were white, testified that in their unit, Robinson was "held in high regard." Jackie’s colonel testified that he would be satisfied going into combat with Robinson under him.

Jackie himself took the witness stand, and offered an inspired explanation of his angry reaction at being called a nigger. "My grandmother was a slave. She told me a nigger was a low, uncouth person, and pertains to no one in particular; but I don’t consider that I am low and uncouth. I am a Negro, but not a nigger."

In summing up, the defense insisted to the panel that the case involved no violations as charged, but was "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 seek to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and as a soldier."

Jackie got the necessary votes for acquittal, and was found "not guilty of all specifications and charges." He had stood up against the humiliating and unjust Jim Crow laws and won.

Only a few years later, he would step onto a baseball field in Brooklyn and strike an even bigger blow for equality, earning more than just a place among the greatest athletes of the century.