On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But on July 6, 1944, Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt (“Jackie”) Robinson also refused to move to the back of the bus, and he received a court martial.
Jackie Robinson, later to become famous as the first black to integrate major league baseball in modern times, was assigned to Camp Hood near Waco, Texas during World War II. Camp Hood had a bad reputation among blacks, not only because of the segregation on the post but also because of the depth of racism in the neighboring towns.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson was riding a bus on the base and sitting next to a fellow officer’s light-skinned wife. The driver instructed Robinson to move to a seat farther back. Robinson argued with him, and when he got off at his stop, the bus dispatcher joined in the altercation. A crowd formed and military policemen arrived. The MPs took Robinson into the station. John Vernon, an archivist at the National Archives (Prologue, Spring 2008), tells what happened next:
“…when they arrived at the station to meet with the camp’s assistant provost marshal, a white MP ran up to the vehicle and excitedly inquired if they had ‘the nigger lieutenant’ with them. The utterance of this unexpected and especially offensive racial epithet served to set Robinson off and he threatened ‘to break in two’ anyone, whatever their rank or status, who employed that word.” Robinson continued to show “disrespect” and received a court martial.
Robinson contacted the NAACP and sought publicity from the Negro press. He also wrote to the War Department. The white press picked up on the situation as Robinson was a well-known athlete from his days at UCLA. (In his time at UCLA, Robinson won a national championship in track and field, two consecutive conference scoring titles as a basketball player, was an honorable mention All-American in football, and also played a little baseball.) Higher ups were worried about this “political dynamite.”
At the court martial trial, Robinson’s commanding officer gave a glowing report on his character. His army-appointed defense attorney pointed out inconsistencies in witnesses’ accounts. The attorney also suggested that Robinson’s assertiveness was a legitimate expression of resentment given the racially hostile environment. Ultimately, the court acquitted Robinson of all charges.
While what happened to Robinson was not unique, the outcome of the conflict was unusual. It would more than another decade before blacks were free to sit where they chose on the bus.
For information on Rosa Parks and the boycott that followed her brave refusal in 1955, see my post here.