Jackie Robinson is most noted for integrating Major League Baseball on April 15, 1947.

However, Robinson’s role in the eventual integration of the military is less well known. Five years before his Major Leagues debut, Robinson was drafted into the U.S. Army on April 3, 1942. He was inducted into the military after the United States intensified its involvement in World War II following the December 7, 1941, surprise bombing of a U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii. As one of 1.2 million African American men and women that served in the U.S. military during the war, Robinson actively joined the “Double V” campaign, through which African American soldiers tried to use their war service to fight against German antisemitism abroad and U.S. domestic racism.

Seizing upon the U.S. military’s stated goals for victory overseas, African American leaders and soldiers asserted that World War II should be a “war against bigotry and racial intolerance both at home and abroad.” The African American newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier, provocatively asked, “Should I Sacrifice to Live ‘Half-American’…Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life?” To draw attention to their extension of the war aims, African Americans wore “Double V” buttons; the Black press wrote extensive articles detailing the accomplishments of African American soldiers; and leaders like W.E.B. DuBois wrote editorials and gave speeches heralding African American soldiers’ double-themed war effort.

Even as a new recruit, Jackie Robinson embraced the “Double V” campaign when first stationed in a segregated, all-Black unit at Fort Riley, Kansas. He noticed that African Americans were not permitted to join Officers Candidate School. After protesting, he, along with several other African Americans were admitted and were eventually conferred officer status. As a second lieutenant, Robinson was one of the few African American officers in the military. Making up one percent of the military in 1940 when the draft began, most African American soldiers served in service roles or support units. Robinson’s military experiences, like those of most African American soldiers, mirrored the challenges faced by African Americans as they sought to assert their claim to full citizenship in the United States. Continuing inequality laid bare the hypocrisy of the United States’ fighting in World War II for the freedoms of people overseas oppressed by the Nazi regime while African American soldiers served in segregated units and African American citizens lived and worked in a system that denied them rights afforded to white citizens.

Aware of the difficulties of optimizing the nation’s military response to the war while simultaneously maintaining systems of segregation, President Roosevelt had issued Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. This order banned discriminatory practice by federal agencies including the Department of War, unions, and all companies engaged in war-related work. Despite Roosevelt’s effort, discrimination in wartime industries continued, especially in the South.

Jackie Robinson in Military uniform
Photo by William C. Green/Sports Studio Photos/Getty Images

In 1944, Robinson was transferred to Fort Hood, located just outside of Waco, Texas. Like many other military bases in the South, southern customs were vigorously enforced by local townspeople when African American soldiers went off base, and at times when civilian and military life intersected on the base. For example, it was common for local bus companies to hold transportation contracts with the military to transport soldiers across the base and into town. As one of the most high-profile spaces, where the customs of segregation were publicly spacially enforced, the local bus company’s policies frequently violated the federal, war-time ban on discrimination. Aware of these violations, Robinson quickly faced trouble by defying southern customs when demanded that the federal orders be upheld.

While riding in the front of a bus transporting him to Fort Hood, the bus driver ordered Robinson to move to the back. Robinson refused to move. At a subsequent bus stop, an argument between Robinson and the bus driver drew widespread attention. In their investigation of the event, military police and Fort Riley’s provost marshal spoke with the bus driver and other witnesses who alleged that Robinson was at fault. Military officials contended that Robinson conducted himself in a “sloppy and contemptuous” manner as they tried to investigate the incident.

One month after the bus incident, Jackie Robinson faced a military court-martial. He faced six charges: disturbing the peace, drunkenness, conduct unbecoming an officer, insulting a civilian woman, insubordination, and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer. Determined to prove his innocence, Robinson faced a daunting task. As Historian Jack D. Foner reminded us, “Many black soldiers were unjustly convicted by court-martial, either because their officers assumed their guilt regardless of the evidence or because they wanted to ‘set an example’ for other black soldiers.” Furthermore, efforts to discredit African Americans soldiers were also designed to call into question their contributions to the war effort as they tried to assert that their patriotic service should be rewarded by ending segregation and other forms of racial injustice.

Viewing the charges as racially motivated, Robinson sought the help of several powerful African American institutions—the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Black press—to draw attention to his trial. As a result of those efforts, headquarters at the base began to receive inquiries about Robinson’s upcoming trial from the Black press and others. As a former All-American football player at UCLA, many African Americans were familiar with Jackie Robinson, and many in the African American community worried that a high-profile court martial could deal important blows to the “Double V” campaign.

View of American baseball player Jackie Robinson (1919 - 1972), dressed in a military uniform, as he run with his rifle, April 21, 1945
Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images

My lawyer summed up the case beautifully by telling the board that this was not a case involving any violation of the Articles of War, or even of military tradition, but simply a situation in which a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a Negro they considered ‘uppity’ because he had the audacity to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and a soldier.

Jackie Robinson
I Never Had It Made: An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson

The court martial began on August 2, 1944. The charges involving Robinson’s unwillingness to bend to southern customs were dropped including disturbing the peace, drunkenness, and conduct unbecoming an officer. The remaining charges of insubordination and refusing to obey the lawful orders of a superior officer were tantamount to suggesting that Robinson had obstructed the investigation of the responding officers. The trial lasted four and-a-half hours. Voting by secret written ballot, the court, made up of nine combat officers, found Robinson not guilty of all charges.

In his autobiography, Robinson later remembered: “My lawyer summed up the case beautifully by telling the board that this was not a case involving any violation of the Articles of War, or even of military tradition, but simply a situation in which a few individuals sought to vent their bigotry on a Negro they considered ‘uppity’ because he had the audacity to exercise rights that belonged to him as an American and a soldier.” Often, when we think about the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement, we focus on the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision or the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott, but historians of the “long Civil Rights Movement” have reminded us that the determination of ‘uppity’ World War II soldiers like Robinson who were committed to ensuring that wartime measures that chipped away at segregation would be extended and expanded in the post-war period, were crucial to the fight for greater rights and freedoms for African Americans long before the Brown decision.

Following his acquittal, Robinson was transferred to Camp Breckinridge in Kentucky. There, he coached African American athletic teams. A longstanding ankle injury caused Robinson to be listed under the Army’s "limited duty" fitness classification. Four months after the trial, the Army granted Robinson an honorable discharge in November 1944.

Twenty-nine months after his military career ended, and fifteen months after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball in April 1947, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, which called for the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces. This was a monumental step in the early days of the Civil Rights Movement and a major outcome of the “Double V” campaign. Robinson played an important role in integrating both spaces: Major League Baseball and the military. Using his high profile to draw attention to the contradictions between America’s stated ideals and the harsh realities facing its African American citizens, through his play and activism, he helped open the doors to countless opportunities for African Americans that wanted to pursue the American Dream of going as far as their talent and motivation could take them.

Damion Thomas, Museum Curator of Sports and Bremante Bryant, Curatorial Assistant

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