Jackie Robinson earned acclaim right from 1941 when he became the first athlete in the history of UCLA to earn a letter in four different sports in the same year – basketball, football, track and baseball. After being drafted into the Army, he was discharged in 1945. He joined the Kansas City Monarchs of the American Negro League before eventually becoming the first Black player in major league baseball.
At the time, everyone was aware that the first Black to break the color barrier in baseball would not only have to be talented but strong enough to withstand a barrage of racist attacks. Robinson did just that. With courage and sacrifice, he confronted Jim Crow, both as a baseball player and as a civil rights activist, and helped changed America.
In fact, years before he became the first Black man to play in major league baseball, he had his own Rosa Parks moment when he was ordered to move to the back of a bus. On the evening of July 6, 1944, Robinson, who was then serving in the U.S. Army at Camp Hood, boarded a military bus to return to McCloskey General Hospital, located near the Camp Hood Army base in Texas.
2nd Lt. Jackie Robinson (as the future baseball star was known) took a seat next to a fellow officer’s fair-skinned wife, who was actually African American. The White driver, who thought the woman was White, ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Public transportation in America was still heavily segregated at that time even though the Army was in the process of enacting policies to desegregate government-operated forms of transportation for service members, according to Undefeated.
After Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus, he was taken into custody once the bus arrived at its destination. Reports say that once the bus reached the station, the driver called Robinson the N-word, and this led to a confrontation. The military police arrived on the scene but Robinson, still angry about being called the N-word, disrupted the investigation of the incident by the military police on the scene.
Robinson was eventually tried in a general court-martial, which is reserved for the most severe offenses in the armed forces, the Undefeated wrote. He was originally charged on five counts: vulgar language toward two civilians, abusive language in a “public space”, disrespect of a commanding officer and disobeying of a direct order, the Undefeated added. All except the last two charges were later dropped.
At the trial in August, Robinson was found not guilty by the nine-person court. But the court-martial meant that Robinson was banned from serving overseas, so he served as a U.S. Army athletics coach until he was honorably discharged, as stated by KTSM.
Robinson’s account of what happened is included in his letter to the Assistant to the Secretary of War.
July 16, 1944
Truman K. Gibson
Ass’t to Sec of War
I am sorry to bother you again but under the circumstances there seems to be no alternative.
On or about the 7th of July I was at Camp Hood, Texas visiting the colored officers club and upon leaving I took a shuttle bus from the club to the central station. As I moved to the rear I noticed one of the officer’s wife [sic] and sat down beside her. The lady is very fair and to many people looks to be white. It is evident the driver seemed to resent my talking to her and told me to move to the rear. He didn’t ask the lady to move so I refused. When I did he threatened to make trouble for me when we reached the bus station. Upon reaching the bus station a white lady tells me that she is going to prefer charges against me. She said she heard the driver tell me to move to the rear. I told her I didn’t care if she preferred charges against me and she went away angry. That is the last that was said to the lady and the next thing I hear is I’ve cursed a white lady out. I feel now that I should have but I have never cursed one out and I certainly didn’t start with her.
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. . . little advice. I want know to know just how far I should go with the case, what I mean is should I appeal to the NAACP and the Negro Press? I don’t want any unfavorable publicity for myself or the Army but I believe in fair play and I feel I have to let someone in on the case. If I write the NAACP I hope to get statements from all the witnesses because a broad minded person can see how the people framed me.
You can see sir that I need your advice. I don’t care what the outcome of the trial is because I know I am being framed and the charges aren’t too bad. I would like to get your advice about the publicity. I have a lot of good publicity out and I feel I have numerous friends on the press but I first want to her [sic] from you before I do anything I will be sorry for later on.
Sir as I said I don’t mind trouble but I do believe in fair play and justice. I feel that I’m being taken in this case and I will tell people about it unless the trial is fair. Let me hear from you so I will know what steps to take.
Lt. Jack Robinson
Ward 11 B
McClosky Gen Hosp.
Historians believe that due to Robinson’s sports fame, the army was worried about bad publicity. Hence, the court acquitted Robinson of all charges.