On this day: Jackie Robinson refuses to give up seat on U.S. Army bus, court-martialed

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EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — A future baseball Hall of Famer took a stand against social injustice on July 6, 1944, long before he helped win the World Series. 

2nd Lieutenant Jackie Robinson was stationed at Camp (now Fort) Hood when he was ordered to move to the back of the bus, even though segregation was banned on military buses. Robinson sat next to a light-skinned Black woman who was mistaken for a white woman by the bus driver.

Robinson refused to move to the back of the bus and was taken into custody once the bus arrived at its destination. The investigating officer recommended Robinson be court-martialed after Robinson pressed him about the line of questioning, which Robinson believed was racist. 

In a letter to the Assistant Secretary of War, Robinson wrote:

Sir:

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.

Temple, Texas

Robinson’s commander refused to authorize legal action against the future baseball star and Robinson was transferred to the 758th Battalion. Once transferred, Robinson faced multiple charges that included public drunkenness, although Robinson did not drink. The charges were eventually reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning, but Robinson was eventually acquitted during the court-martial.

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.

Robinson met a former player for the Kansas City Monarchs from the Negro American League while he was an Army coach. The player encouraged Robinson to pursue a tryout, which he did and later made the team.

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