Jackie Robinson, known for breaking the color line in baseball and his impressive record on the field, was also one of the first civil rights fighters. The first black baseball player since the 1880s, Mr. Robinson would go on to confront political officials, players, and even the US military.
The year was 1942. A fresh-faced Robinson had just been drafted into the army. Assigned to the segregated Army Cavalry in Fort Riley, Kan., Robinson applied to the Officer Candidate School. Despite his qualifications, it would be months before he was admitted. By 1943, Robinson graduated and was commissioned second lieutenant.
Lt. Robinson was then reassigned to Fort Hood, Texas, where he joined the ranks of the 761 “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion. He would remain there until an incident in 1944 that would change his entire career.
Robinson had a history of being hotheaded with racists. His biography is chock full of anecdotes about how he, even at a young age, fought back against racism.
In July 6,1944, Robinson boarded a bus leaving the hospital where he had been awaiting test results. When he sat down, the Southwestern Bus Company bus driver Milton Reneger told Robinson to move to the back of the bus. Robinson refused, telling Reneger to focus on driving.
When the bus arrived at its destination, Robinson and Reneger continued to argue. By the time military police arrived, a crowd had formed. The MPs, none of which outranked Robinson, asked him to go with them to headquarters in order to straighten out the matter.
Back at headquarters, he threatened to “break in two” anyone that called him derogatory slurs. Robinson argued about the incident on the bus but was met with resistance.
This event would lead to Robinson’s transfer to the 758 Battalion. His previous commanding officer would not authorize a court-martial but upon transferring, Robinson was charged with multiple offenses, among them were showing disrespect to a superior, failure to obey a command, and public drunkenness. Robinson contacted the NAACP. He was going to make his story known.
Robinson's writings, interviews, investigations, and meetings made it so the many charges against him were dropped down to two by the time of the court-martial. Robinson was eventually acquitted of all charges by an all-white panel.
After the court-martial, Robinson was transferred to Camp Breckinridge, Ky., where he would finish out his military career and receive an honorable discharge in November 1944.
After the military, Robinson returned to the sports world. However, his reputation for fighting against racism followed him. It was Robinson's known character that led to the famous conversation between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey.
Mr. Rickey had heard of Robinson’s previous arguments and the court-martial. He feared that Robinson would not able to withstand playing for the team due to the inevitable racism he would face. Robinson, appalled, asked Rickey if he was, “looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?” Rickey replied that he needed a Negro, “with guts enough not to fight back.”
Robinson agreed and later signed a contract with the Montreal Royals, becoming the first black player in the major leagues since the 1880s.
The young man that was born to sharecroppers in Cairo, Ga., was on his way to changing baseball and molding an incoming generation.