Army Major Adam Kama recently examined the 1944 court record of the court-martial of Jackie Robinson and wrote a lengthy article in the Army Lawyer. See "Fair Play and Justice: The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson," 1 Army Lawyer 68 (2020). What Major Kama found reveals how deeply entrenched racism was within Army culture. The American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law presented Major Kama with an award for his work at its 2020 annual meeting this summer.
In the 2013 movie "42" (starring the late Chadwick Boseman as Robinson) Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey is portrayed searching for a man with enough resiliency and character to withstand the expected indignities and humiliations in becoming the first Black Major League Baseball player. Major Kama says Robinson's conduct during his trial shows he had the precise qualities Rickey sought in that Robinson stood firm and had faith that the system would prove his innocence.
Not included in Major Kama's article are some of Robinson's experiences with discrimination in the military that he described in his autobiography. When those are considered, it is obvious that by the time of his court-martial, Robinson had already shown his ability to take a stand against racism in the Army.
Before the incident
Jackie Robinson, UCLA's first four-letter collegiate athlete, was drafted into the military in 1942. He was an enlisted man at first, but later became an officer in the racially segregated Army. While stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, Robinson was denied admittance to the post's baseball team, and told he could only play for the Black team.
In April 1944, he was transferred to Camp Hood, Texas, which was renamed Fort Hood in 1950. Robinson was platoon leader in the 761st Tank Battalion, known as the Black Panthers.
A 1937 football injury left him with a floating bone chip in his right heel. Because of that injury, he was ordered to undergo a physical assessment for fitness to continue in the service. Thus, he was temporarily transferred to McCloskey Hospital in Temple, Texas, 30 miles from Camp Hood on June 21, 1944.
On the evening of July 6, Robinson went to the Camp Hood Black officers' club where he spent several hours. As a teetotaler, he did not drink any alcohol. Afterward, he boarded a Camp Hood shuttle bus, intending to go to the Camp Hood Central Bus Station to transfer to a civilian bus and return to the hospital.
Robinson sat down next to an African-American woman acquaintance in the middle of the bus, the wife of a fellow lieutenant. After proceeding five or six blocks, the white bus driver directed Robinson to move to the rear of the bus. Robinson refused.
When the bus arrived at the central station, the station dispatcher confronted Robinson, and Military Police arrived. An MP instructed Robinson to sit in the patrol car while they assessed the situation. As he was sitting in the patrol car, a soldier from another bus who saw the commotion asked the MPs whether they had a "[N-word] lieutenant" in their car. Robinson heard the remark and threatened to break the soldier in two.
At the MP guardroom, the officer of the day called the camp's commander of the MPs, Captain Gerald Bear. Captain Bear did not like Robinson's attitude.
Statements were taken from civilians on the bus and from service members. One of the civilian's statement twice referred to Robinson using the same slur. None of the other witnesses referred to Robinson as "the lieutenant," but as "the colored lieutenant." The bus driver explained he wanted Robinson to move to the back of the bus because there were white women passengers and he didn't think they would want to ride in a bus "mixed up like that."
On July 17, Robinson was formally charged with six distinct violations of the Articles of War, the precursor to the modern Uniform Code of Military Justice, and placed under arrest. Later, the government eliminated all the charges that had anything to do with Robinson's reaction to the racial slur.
The United States v. 2LT Jack R. Robinson trial began on Aug. 2, 1944, at Camp Hood, 26 days after the incident. Robinson's fate was to be decided by nine men, two of whom were African-American.
The Army's lawyers tried to keep from the tribunal all evidence that the offensive word that had been used. But Robinson testified in his own defense. He described what the private had called him, and freely admitted under oath he told the private that if he ever called him that again, "he would break him in two." One of Robinson's lawyers asked, "do you know what a [N-word] is?" Robinson responded, "I looked it up once, but my Grandmother gave me a good definition, she was a slave, and she said the definition of the word was a low, uncouth person and pertains to no one in particular; but I don't consider that I am low and uncouth. I looked it up in the dictionary afterwards and it says the word [N-word] pertains to the negroid or negro, but it is also a machine used in a saw mill for pushing logs into the saws. I objected to being called a [N-word] by this private or by anybody else. When I made this statement that I did not like to be called [N-word], I told the Captain, I said, 'If you call me a [N-word], I might have to say the same thing to you, I don't mean to incriminate anybody, but I just don't like it.' I do not consider myself a [N-word] at all, I am a negro, but not a [N-word]."
The soldier who called Robinson by the slur denied that he did. But on cross-examination, he admitted that Robinson said to him that if he ever called him that again he would break him in two. Then he stammered when he was asked to explain why Robinson would threaten to break him in two if he didn't use that epithet.
After the government rested its case, the defense called one of the MPs who was at the scene at the central bus station. The MP was asked if the soldier asked him if he had a "[N-word] lieutenant" in his patrol car. The MP responded: "Yes, sir, he did at the bus station."
The defense argued it proved the incident was predicated on the use of a slur by an enlisted man upon an officer. That evidence put into perspective the behavior in Robinson that Captain Bear found objectionable at the MP guardhouse.
After a four hour and 15-minute trial, Lieutenant Robinson and his defense counsel rose to hear the verdict. "Upon secret written ballot, two-thirds of the members present at the time the vote was taken ... finds the accused of all specifications and charges: Not guilty and therefore acquit the accused."
After finishing Major Kama's article, I read Jackie Robinson's autobiography, "I Never Had It Made," the last few pages of which reached the publisher five days before Robinson died of a heart attack in 1972. His book filled in some of the details, not only about what led up to his court-martial, but also about racism he faced in the Army.
Robinson's initial exposure to World War II was while onboard a ship traveling from Honolulu. He had played for the Honolulu Bears, a racially integrated football team and the season ended in November 1941. The ship left Honolulu on December 5. A few days later, he saw the crew was covering all the ship's windows with black paint. The same day, passengers were called to the deck and informed by the captain that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
When Robinson reached Fort Riley, he applied for Officers Candidate School. He passed all the requirements for OCS, but he and other successful Black recruits sat around for more than three months without beginning school. Then boxer Joe Louis was assigned to Fort Riley and they told him about the delay. Louis immediately contacted "some powerful people in the government." Robinson wrote that once Fort Riley command felt heat from Washington, the Black men were welcomed into OCS.
Major Kama's article mentions that Robinson was told he had to play on the colored baseball team. Robinson's book describes what happened when he tried to play football. He practiced with the Army team, and the first scheduled game was with the University of Missouri. That team made it clear to the Army that its members would not play a team with a Black player. Instead of telling him the truth, the Army gave Robinson leave to go home. He later found out why he was given leave and decided not to play for the Army because it would not permit him to play in all the games due to his race.
Another racially charged episode occurred at Fort Riley. In the mess hall, six or seven seats were set aside for Black soldiers. Day after day, Black men would stand around with their lunch waiting for a seat, despite many empty seats available in the non-Black section. As morale officer, Robinson telephoned the provost marshal, a major, and told him about the situation. The major said there was nothing to be done. Robinson pushed the issue. Assuming he was speaking with a white man, the major said: "Lieutenant, let me put it to you this way. How would you like your wife to be sitting next to a [N-word]?" Robinson exploded and ripped into the major. Every typewriter stopped. The colonel's office was nearby. A warrant officer advised Robinson to speak directly to the colonel to explain how he was provoked and why he acted the way he did. Robinson followed that advice. The colonel wrote a letter to the commanding general requesting more seats for Black soldiers and recommending discipline for the provost marshal due to his racist attitude. Indeed, more seats were opened for Black soldiers, and the next time Robinson and the major crossed paths, the major was very respectful. In his book, Robinson ruminated that the colonel proved to him "that when people in authority take a stand, good can come out of it."
Regarding the incident that led up to the court-martial, Robinson says he was aware that Joe Louis and Ray Robinson [I assume he was the boxer later known as Sugar Ray Robinson] had refused to move to the back of an Army bus in Alabama. As a result, the Army issued regulations barring racial discrimination in any vehicle operating on an Army post. Thus, when the bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back of the bus, he ignored him, refusing to be intimidated. When Robinson did not move, the bus driver shouted that if he didn't move, he would cause Robinson plenty of trouble. Robinson hotly said he couldn't care less and knew what his rights were. When they reached the central bus station, the bus driver jumped off the bus and summoned the station dispatcher, pointed out Robinson and said, "there's the [N-word] that's been causing me trouble."
About the MPs who came to the scene, Robinson says they were enlisted men. They were polite to Robinson and called him "sir." His first indication that he was in trouble was when Robinson met Captain Bear, the commander of the MPs at the MP guardhouse. Robinson perceived Bear thought he was uppity.
Robinson thought highly of the two officers who defended him. One was from the south, and forthrightly told him he wasn't sure he could be objective. That officer recommended an officer from Michigan join the defense team.
Another factor Robinson felt worked in his favor was letters written to the Black press by his fellow Black officers. Robinson thought the Army realized that if he was treated unfairly, it would not be kept a secret, and it didn't want the spotlight on the Army for racial discrimination.
The most disturbing part of Robinson's account of his military service is that the Army permitted the practice of Jim Crow discrimination on federal property. It is likely that incidents such as the ones Robinson endured were part of President Harry Truman's reasoning in issuing Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, stating "there shall be equality of treatment for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
Nonetheless, just because Black service members are no longer ordered to sit in the back of a military bus or openly insulted with racial slurs, it does not mean they no longer face prejudice. African-American sailors sued for race discrimination in the Navy. In Chappell v. Wallace, 462 U.S. 296 (1983), Black Navy seamen brought a race discrimination claim against their military superiors as individuals, apparently in an attempt to plead around the ban against suing the military for acts incident to service set forth in Feres v. United States, 332 U.S. 301 (1950). In their suit, Black sailors alleged that commanders gave Black sailors less lucrative duties and assignments than their white counterparts, and failed to promote them of the basis of their race. They lost their case under the Feres doctrine.
On July 15, 2020, 72 years after Executive Order 9981 and 37 years after Chappell was dismissed, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper put out a military-wide directive, demonstrating the sailors' concerns are still a problem. Esper barred the use of photos by promotion boards and ordered the development of new hair and grooming standards devoid of racial bias. The directive outlined steps at eliminating "discrimination, prejudice and bias in all ranks" to promote equal opportunity, morale and the readiness of the force.
Major Kama's article provides an opportunity for all of us, not just the military, to examine our past and make an honest accounting of who we have been as a country. Such an examination can help guide us to be the country we aspire to be. While making that honest accounting, we as lawyers should keep in mind that it was an opinion from the U.S. Supreme Court that permitted the military to maintain segregated branches of the armed services, a virtual Petri dish for the additional discrimination Robinson experienced. In finding segregation of the races under the law was not unconstitutional, Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), in effect, sanctioned continued ignorance and apathy by white America.