The true story of how Jackie Robinson stood up to racism in the Army — and got court-martialed as a result
In August 1945, one year after his acquittal, Robinson’s famed meeting with Branch Rickey would occur at Rickey’s office in downtown Brooklyn.
This article originally appears in 2020 Issue 1, The Army Lawyer. The opinions expressed in this article are Major Kama’s and do not necessarily represent the views of The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, the United States Army, or any other governmental agency.
On a hot August afternoon at Camp Hood, Texas, in 1944, nine Army officers sat in judgment in the general court-martial of a second lieutenant accused of insubordination and disrespect under the Articles of War. The trial would last just four hours and fifteen minutes and result in a full acquittal.
This seemingly unremarkable court-martial was one of millions convened to mete out justice during World War II, and could have easily been lost and forgotten in the grand scale of the war. No one alive today would remember this short proceeding had the accused not been the future American icon and baseball legend, Jackie Robinson.
Destined to break the baseball color barrier on April 15, 1947, he would go on to win many baseball accolades before becoming a businessperson and civil rights champion.
The character and resiliency Robinson displayed at his court-martial when his reputation, career, and freedom was on the line were precisely the qualities that Branch Rickey, President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was looking for when he selected Robinson for his “great experiment.”
Many hundreds of books and articles would be devoted to the life and legend of Jackie Robinson in the ensuing decades. Several scholarly articles would detail and analyze the incident that led to the charges and the court-martial itself. The court-martial convened under the Articles of War replete with detailed rules and procedures that inform the larger story of what 2nd Lt. Robinson experienced on the fateful night of 6 July 1944.
The advent of the internet has made possible a new evaluation of his court-martial. The Record of Trial, now in digital format and accessible to anyone, contains the full transcript of the proceeding and provides a nearly complete picture of all that occurred in those four hours at Camp Hood.
Additionally, the National Archives Catalogue has made available Robinson’s complete Official Military Personnel File under its Persons of Exceptional Prominence program, allowing incredible insight into his brief Army career. Finally, modern internet search engines allow us to research other “characters” associated with the court-martial, gaining insight into their backgrounds and motivations.
In this context, the complete story of United States v. 2LT Jack R. Robinson can be told.
2LT Jack R. Robinson
As a former four-letter collegiate athlete drafted into the Army in April 1942, Jackie Robinson was the ideal model of a citizen turned Soldier. An enlisted cavalryman and later cavalry officer at Fort Riley, Kansas, Robinson experienced early in his career the racism of a segregated Army.
During one incident at this western Army post, Robinson would be denied admittance to the post’s baseball team, being told that he could play only on the “colored team.”
In April 1944, Robinson was transferred to the now fabled 761st Tank Battalion at Camp Hood, Texas, to assume the position of tank platoon leader.
Formed in 1942 and classified as a “colored” unit, the 761st Tank Battalion was typical of the how the Army employed African-American Soldiers: all African-American enlisted Soldiers led by all white field-grade officers and a mix of white and African-American officers at the company-grade level.Robinson would serve in the 761st for just three months before an ankle condition would threaten to sideline his promising military career.
A 1937 football injury left Robinson with a floating bone chip in his right heel that plagued him throughout his military career. To determine his fitness for continued service, Robinson was required to undergo an Army Retiring Board physical assessment. In order to make this process more efficient on the Army’s end, Soldiers stationed at Camp Hood undergoing the ARB battery of tests were temporarily transferred to McCloskey Hospital in Temple, Texas, thirty miles east of Camp Hood.
On June 21, 1944, Robinson was transferred to McCloskey Hospital to be stationed there for a few weeks to undergo his ARB physical.
July 6, 1944
On the evening of July 6, 1944, Robinson set out from McCloskey Hospital and traveled to Camp Hood’s colored officers’ club to visit friends and socialize.He remained there for several hours socializing, but did not drink, as Robinson was a teetotaler. Several hours later, he boarded a bus near the club to return to the hospital.
The bus Robinson boarded operated within Camp Hood as a shuttle moving Soldiers to and from locations on the sprawling installation. The bus was headed to Camp Hood’s Central Bus Station, a transfer area located near one of the main gates where on-post shuttles would meet county and other buses to take Soldiers and civilians further off post.
Here, Robinson planned on boarding this bus to take him the rest of the way to McCloskey Hospital.
When he stepped aboard the Army’s shuttle bus, Robinson recognized Virginia Jones, the wife of a fellow African-American lieutenant in the 761st Tank Battalion who lived in nearby Belton. Jones was sitting in the middle of the bus, and Robinson, as an acquaintance, sat down next to her. After proceeding five or six blocks, the bus driver, a white man named Milton Renegar, instructed Robinson to move to the rear of the bus.
Robinson refused, setting off a chain of events that would inform the rest of his life and career.
Race-based seating on public transport was a staple of Jim Crow-era segregation laws throughout the south. However, Camp Hood and other installations located throughout the United States were on federal property that notionally did not enforce these biased state and local laws.
Despite this, perhaps in an attempt to maintain the social order familiar to so many millions of white Americans, the Army maintained some segregated facilities, such as the colored officers club, even in states that did not have Jim Crow laws. But by June 1944, the War Department began to change some of its policies forbidding the enforcement of state Jim Crow era policies on buses on military installations.
Given his connection to the African-American press, as well as other influential African-Americans, Robinson knew that segregation on public transport on federal installations was changing. In refusing the order to move to the back of the bus, he felt he was within his rights.
Tempers were heated and voices were raised as a crowd formed around Robinson. Several of the other passengers, mostly white women who worked on Camp Hood, made racist remarks to Robinson, goading him, causing him to raise his voice.But, the bus driver stood firm, telling him that he would “make trouble for him” upon their arrival at the bus station. At the bus transfer station, Robinson disembarked with Ms. Jones to catch his connecting bus, but was now swirled into a larger incident when Irving Younger, the station dispatcher, appeared to confront the young Lieutenant.
Finally, the Military Police arrived on scene to quell the incident.
One MP, Cpl. George Elwood, hoping to contain the situation, asked Robinson to sit in their patrol vehicle. While Robinson was in the MP vehicle, a Soldier, changing buses on the way back to his barracks and had seen the commotion,
Pfc. Ben Mucklerath, approached the MPs and asked them whether they had a “n—– lieutenant” in their car. Robinson heard this incendiary slur and threatened to break Pfc. Mucklerath “in two.” Cpl. Elwood convinced Robinson to return with them to the MP guardroom to discuss the incident with the camp officer of day. To act as an eyewitness, Pfc. Mucklerath was asked to return to the guardroom as well.
If Robinson hoped to find a sympathetic ear at the MP station, he would soon be sorely disappointed. Upon arrival at the MP guardroom, Robinson met with Capt. Peelor Wigginton, the camp’s laundry officer who was assigned as the officer of the day for 6 and 7 July 1944.
The escorting MPs briefed Wigginton that an incident occurred at the bus station and he asked Robinson to explain what had happened.
Unhelpfully, Wigginton also asked Pfc. Mucklerath for his observations, which he relayed in front of Robinson. This naturally led to a disagreement about the events at the bus station with Wigginton telling Robinson to stop interrupting the private. Perhaps feeling out of his element, Wigginton called for Capt. Gerald Bear, the Camp’s Assistant Provost Marshal and Commander of the MPs, to assist him at the MP guardhouse.
He ordered Robinson out of the building until Capt. Bear arrived.
Robinson intercepted Capt. Bear outside the building, apparently eager to tell his story, and followed him into the MP building. Inside, Wigginton debriefed Bear while Robinson waited in an adjoining waiting room. The Dutch door to this room was left half open. Robinson became frustrated because he could hear the story being told without his input. He appeared several times at the doorway where Bear and the others were located, and protested about what he felt were inaccuracies in Wigginton’s story.
According to Bear, he stated that Robinson “smirked or grimaced,” bowed, and rendered “sloppy salutes” whenever he was told to leave the doorway. This action repeated itself “several times” according to Bear and would later draw a specification of disrespecting a senior commissioned officer.
Finally, Robinson was allowed to make his statement to Bear and “Ms. Wilson,” a stenographer who enraged Robinson with what he perceived as a racist attitude. Robinson, normally a quick speaker, was asked to slow down his speech for his statement.
The incident at the guardhouse ended in a controversial manner that would end up being a major theme at the court-martial.
Capt. Bear directed that Robinson be escorted back to McCloskey Hospital in an Army vehicle by MP Soldiers. Robinson was mystified as to why he was being treated in this manner. Bear justified that Robinson was under “arrest in quarters.”
Robinson likely arrived back at McCloskey Hospital around sunrise on July 7, 1944, his ordeal over, for now.
The Investigation and Statements
Almost immediately, Bear would drive an investigation into the matter of the previous evening. Having taken Robinson’s statement in the early hours of July 7, over the next two full days, he would take sworn statement accounts from various witnesses who interacted with Robinson at the bus station or later at the MP station.
More than a dozen individuals — enlisted MPs, civilian witnesses, as well as four fellow officers, including Bear and Wigginton — would provide sworn statements as part of Bear’s investigation. All portrayed Robinson in a negative light.
Milton Renegar, the bus driver, passengers Elizabeth Poitevint and Ruby Johnson, two white Camp Hood Post Exchange employees, and Bevlia B. “Pinkey” Younger, the bus dispatcher, made statements.
Though ostensibly they made these statements as witnesses to the incident at the bus station, they may better be described as participants. All four of the civilians’ statements reveal the racism and prejudice of the period.
Pinkey Younger openly referred to Robinson as a “n—– Lt.” twice and called him a “disgrace to the uniform he wears.” Renegar, explaining why he wanted Robinson to move to the back of the bus, stated he didn’t think his passengers — all white women — would want to ride in a bus “mixed up like that,” meaning next to an African-American.
Elizabeth Poitevint, a post-exchange employee, displaying her displeasure at being close to an African-American stated, “I had to wait on them during the day,” referring to African-American Soldiers shopping at the Post Exchange, “but I didn’t have to sit with them on the bus.”
The sworn statements made by military personnel, who were likewise all white, were also marked by the racism of the period. These enlisted MPs, some of whom met Robinson at the bus station and transported him to the MP station, and several officers, all of whom were witnesses at the MP station, provided sworn statements.
Without exception, Robinson was never referred to as a “lieutenant,” but as a “colored lieutenant.” The distinction here is clear; he was less than a commissioned officer to these Soldiers. The MP and other officer statements, generally, all made the same observations: that Robinson’s actions in the MP station were disrespectful to Bear.
One other overarching theme was evident in the investigation.
Bear was interested in whether or not Pfc. Mucklerath called Robinson a “n—–.” The two MPs dispatched to the disturbance at the bus station, Cpl. George Elwood and Private Lester Phillips, were asked whether they heard anyone call Robinson this epithet.
Though the word “n—–” was commonly used during the period, the distinct impression from reading the case file is that it was still a loaded, hateful term and generally frowned upon by polite society.
Pfc. Mucklerath would emphatically deny referring to Robinson in this way. From his sworn statement: “I had not any time called the Lt. a ‘n—–.’” In fact, Mucklerath did call him this epithet at the bus station, as Cpl. Elwood noted in his sworn statement that night. This denial and confrontation would pay off spectacularly later at the court-martial.
The lone individual whose sworn statement was helpful to Robinson was that of Victoria Jones, the African-American woman he shared a bus seat with on that fateful night.
She provided her sworn statement almost two weeks after the others and only after Robinson sought her out and encouraged her to make one.Previous attempts by Bear during his initial investigation were unsuccessful in attempting to persuade Ms. Jones to provide this statement. In a separate statement made by Capt. Bear, he revealed that he went to Ms. Jones’s home in Belton, Texas. During this meeting, Jones stated that she had spoken to Robinson and he asked her not make a statement without talking to Robinson first.
If Capt. Bear, an MP, was troubled by Robinson’s alleged actions concerning Jones, he made no note of it in his sworn statement.
Ms. Jones gave her first and only statement on the matter in her home to Bear on July 19. She was generally a favorable witness to Robinson’s conduct at the bus terminal that evening. She did not observe Robinson saying anything to the white individuals on the bus or at the bus station that was offensive, stating: “I did not hear [Robinson] say anything vile nor vulgar at any time, nor did he raise his voice.”
While this statement from a friendly witness potentially could have been helpful, it seems unlikely that these statements were what actually occurred. Her version of events was likely colored by her acquaintanceship with Robinson, not least because Robinson, by his own admission and those of numerous other witnesses, threatened to break Pfc. Mucklerath “in two.”
The historical record of the week following the incident is scant.
Documents from Robinson’s military record indicate, unbeknownst to him and on account of his medical deployability status, was formally transferred from the 761st Tank Battalion to the 758th Tank Battalion (Light).
On July 16, Robinson, by now concerned that he would face court-martial, penned a letter to Truman K. Gibson, an African-American attorney, then serving as a special assistant on racial affairs to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson.
Robinson had met Gibson when he was stationed at Fort Riley, the year prior, when Gibson was sent as a special envoy to discuss racially charged incidents at the post.In this letter, Robinson asked Gibson for advice. He wanted to know whether he should appeal to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the African-American press of the time.Robinson recognized his heightened standing as a former National Collegiate Athletic Association athlete and semi-professional football player.
Robinson, worried about both the fairness of the trial and about negative publicity for himself and the Army, asked Gibson what steps he should take. Gibson’s response to Robinson is unknown; however, handwritten on the letter from Robinson was a note: “this man is a well-known athlete. He will write you. Follow the case carefully.”
Robinson’s suspicion or indication that he would be court-martialed would prove correct. In the latter half of July, Robinson felt the swift hand of WWII-era military justice. On July 17, he was formally charged with six distinct violations of the Articles of War, the precursor to the modern Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Charge I contained two allegations of disrespect to a superior commissioned officer, the Article of War 63. In the first specification, he was alleged to have been disrespectful to Capt. Bear by stating, “Captain, any Private, you or any General calls me a n—– and I’ll break them in two, I don’t know the definition of the word.” In the second specification, he was charged with contemptuous behavior by bowing to Bear “and giving him several sloppy salutes repeating several times ‘OK Sir, OK Sir.’”
The lone specification of Charge II, a violation of Article of War 64, alleged that Robinson failed to obey a lawful order by a superior officer, as Robinson violated Bear’s order to remain seated in a chair at the reception area of the MP guardhouse.
The final charge, three specifications of a violation of Article of War 95, involved the language Robinson used on the bus and at the Central Bus Station. One specification charged him with abuse and vulgar language for telling Renegar, the bus driver, that he was not “going to move a God damn bit” and called Renegar a “son of a bitch.” The second specification detailed “vile and obscene language” to Ms. Poitevint when he allegedly stated to her: “You better quit fuckin with me.” The last specification was a catch-all charge for using “vile, obscene and vulgar language . . . in the presence of ladies.”
As part of being charged on July 17, Robinson was also placed under arrest at McCloskey Hospital in Texas.
Likely, this was intended as a form of pretrial restraint. The decision to arrest Robinson was standard practice. Article of War 19, arrest and confinement, mandated placing the accused in confinement or arrest, but states that confinement is not appropriate for minor charges (like the one that Robinson was facing). Article of War 69 mandated that someone arrested must be “restricted to his barracks, quarters, or tent.” By arresting Robinson at McCloskey Hospital, they were limiting his freedom to the hospital grounds.
Rarely do WWII court-martial records contain an extraordinary ancillary document that illuminates the thought process of the command. Luckily, the United States v. Robinson record does contain such a document.
Filed on July 17, 1944, the same day that Robinson was charged, the document is a transcription of a telephone conversation between Col. Edward A. Kimball, Commander, 5th Armored Group and Col. Walter D. Buie, Chief of Staff, XXIII Corps, located at nearby Camp Bowie, Texas.
XXIII Corps served as the training command and the General Court-Martial Convening Authority (GCMCA) for the 5th Armored Group. Col. Kimball initiated the phone call because he had a case “involving a colored officer who got into trouble in connection with a bus.” Col. Kimball explained that “this is a very serious case, and it is full of dynamite.” Col. Kimball then requested an “Inspector” be sent from Camp Bowie because the matter was “delicate” and best left to an “outside Inspector.”
He was afraid that he had no one impartial whom he could assign as “any officer [in this command] in charge of troops at this Post might be prejudiced.” Col. Buie gracefully declined helping his subordinate commander by stating that his Corps would like to send an “Inspector,” but had none available.
Col. Buie ended the phone call by telling Col. Kimball to “go ahead and handle it” and to advise them if they needed further assistance.
The Article 70 Investigation
It is unknown why Colonels Buie and Kimball referenced an “Inspector.” It hardly seems likely that they were referencing an Army Inspector General. It is almost certain that they were speaking about who was to serve as the investigation officer at Robinson’s upcoming Article 70 investigation; today known as an Article 32 hearing, the purpose was essentially the same.
An assigned officer, having been forwarded the preferred charges, would make inquiries as to the truth of the matter set forth in the charges “and to make a recommendation as to the disposition of the case made in the interest of justice and discipline.”
The single most notable exception between pre-trial investigations under the Articles of War and today’s UCMJ was that the accused, though provided the right to cross-examine witnesses against him, would not be afforded a defense counsel to assist in doing so. In accordance with the procedures of the Articles of War of its time, a defense counsel would only be assigned after the referral of charges as part of the appointment of a standing court-martial, which included both the members of the court-martial as well as the trial judge advocate.
The investigating officer was Maj. Henry S. Daugherty of the 5th Armored Group. Maj. Daugherty held his investigation of the remaining charges and specifications on July 19, 1944, two days after both the Buie/Kimball phone call and the referral of charges. The evidence Maj. Daugherty used in his investigation was primarily comprised of the sworn statements taken by Capt. Bear on 7 and 8 July 1944, with the addition of in-person testimony from Capt. Bear and Capt. Wigginton.
Maj. Daugherty’s formal “Pretrial Investigating Officer’s Report” completed the day after the hearing on July 20, 1944, was composed on boilerplate forms of the era.
His analysis of the facts and circumstances was not required under Article 70 nor was it included. Maj. Daugherty did not find a sufficient basis to send to court-martial Charge I, Specification I— relating to the allegation that Robinson was disrespectful to Wigginton—nor the two remaining Specifications of Charge III— alleging that Robinson used vulgar language to Ms. Poitevint, the passenger, and Mr. Renegar, the bus driver.
The eliminated specifications had a common theme. Each alleged a reaction by Robinson at either being called a “n—–” or told to move to the back of the bus. Perhaps, Maj. Daugherty thought that Robinson’s alleged reactions were reasonable under the circumstances and that justice required that these charges be dropped.
Despite not recommending that more than half of the charges go forward, Maj. Daugherty still recommended that two specifications proceed to general court-martial.
Two purely military offenses remained: a specification that Robinson was disrespectful in demeanor to Capt. Bear, and another that he failed to follow Bear’s instruction to stay away from the interview room door.In another boilerplate memorandum, Lt. Col. Richard E. Kyle, the Staff Judge Advocate for the GCMCA, XXIII Corps, as part of his pretrial advice to the convening authority, recommended that trial by general court-martial proceed against 2nd Lt. Robinson.
A WWII Court-Martial
A WWII-era court-martial was fundamentally similar to today’s U.S. military court-martial. And, while recognizable as an American court of law, there are some major differences between a court-martial convened under the Articles of War and the UCMJ, a few that are worth noting in order to understand the story fully.
The composition of the court itself is the most striking difference between a court-martial during WWII and the modern era. Notably, there was no military judge.The equivalent duties of today’s military judge was split between two men: the President and the Law Member.
A court-martial’s President was the senior officer on the panel and was charged with “maintain[ing] order, giv[ing] the directions necessary for the regular and proper conduct of the proceedings, [and] tak[ing] proper steps to expedite the trial of all charges referred for trial.”
In practice, however, the President’s role was largely officious and any speaking he did during the court-martial was contained in prompts provided in the court-martial script. The duties that required legal analysis fell to the individual seated to the immediate left of the President, the Law Member. The Law Member was required to be an officer of the Judge Advocate’s Department, but in extenuating circumstances, could be an officer of any branch of the Army (it is almost unthinkable today to appoint a non-attorney to a purely legal role).
Charged simply with “rul[ing] upon interlocutory questions,” the Law Member in practicality ruled on questions of evidence and objections made during the course of the trial and advised the Accused of his rights.The Law Member was required to be seated next to the President during the court-martial, but would also join the other members as a voting member after close of evidence to deliberate on guilt or innocence and, if necessary, the sentence.
All courts-martial were composed exclusively of officers, known simply as “members.” Normally, the only requirement was that the officer have two years of service. A general court-martial like Robinson’s could have any number of members, but no fewer than five officers (the required minimum).
Similarities and differences existed with regard to those individuals who represented the U.S. government and the accused. The Trial Judge Advocate (TJA), the precursor to the modern trial counsel, represented the government. In WWII, as today, the accused was represented by the defense counsel. Most strikingly, neither the TJA nor the defense counsel was required to be a judge advocate or even an attorney. At general courts-martial, each had an assigned assistant, acting in an identical capacity to the primary.
All individuals were detailed to a standing court-martial, with the members, trial judge advocates, and defense counsels pre-detailed as a single bloc in the convening order. Members and counsel could be replaced (or viced in today’s parlance) for other officers. There was no voir dire, but challenges could be made to members, including the Law Member, with cause.
Robinson’s fate would be decided by nine men. Though 75 years later, identifying some of the members is difficult, but several are noteworthy.
Col. Louis J. Compton
The court-martial President, Col. Louis J. Compton, was the father of Julia Compton Moore, wife of Lt. Gen. Hal Moore famed for leading 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry Regiment during the Battle of the Ia Drang in Vietnam.
Maj. John H. Shippey
The Law Member, Maj. John H. Shippey, was the lone Army judge advocate at the court-martial. Though the government likely comprised fully-licensed attorneys, and the defense team certainly did, Shippey was the only member of the court trained in military justice. He graduated from the Judge Advocate General’s School’s first class after it commenced instruction at the University of Michigan Law School in 1943.
Maj. Charles O. Mowder
Maj. Charles O. Mowder, another member, was a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles—the University that Robinson himself attended and made himself known nationally, but ultimately did not graduate from. Maj. Mowder, though, graduated UCLA in 1934, years before Robinson attended.
Capt. Thomas M. Campbell
Capt. Thomas M. Campbell, a medical doctor — one of two African-American members who would help decide Robinson’s fate — was a 1941 graduate of Meharry Medical College and was the battalion surgeon for the 614th Tank Destroyer Battalion, a Colored unit. His medical expertise would come up during the court-martial.
2nd Lt. William A. Cline and 1st Lt. Robert H. Johnson
The task of defending Jackie Robinson fell to two men. Robinson’s appointed defense counsel listed on the convening order was 2nd Lt. William A. Cline, a 34-year-old from Wharton, Texas. Due to his ingrained Southern heritage, 2nd Lt. Cline was candidly unsure if he could provide Robinson effective counsel in defending against charges with strong racial undertones.
Moreover, Cline later remembered telling Robinson that he “had little trial experience.” In fact, Jackie Robinson’s court-martial would be his first adversarial proceeding. In his autobiography, Robinson remembers, “my first big break was that the legal officer assigned to defend me was a southerner [Cline] who had the decency to admit to me he didn’t think he could be objective. He recommended to me a young Michigan officer who did a great job on my behalf.”
That Michigan officer was 1st Lt. Robert H. Johnson, a 32-year-old infantry officer and native of Bay City, Michigan, who, like Cline, was a practicing attorney before the war. Both Cline and Johnson were white officers in “Colored” Tank Destroyer Battalions. Being in sister battalions, they likely knew of each other as former practicing-attorneys-turned-Army-officers. Johnson would join Robinson’s defense team as Individual Counsel.
The position of “Individual Counsel” allowed the accused to be “represented in his defense . . . by counsel of his own selection.” This could include a civilian attorney, but would not be paid for by the government.Individual Counsel was the precursor to the Individual Military Counsel under the UCMJ. Though the defense was a team, Johnson’s experience at courts-martial and zealous advocacy would be instrumental to Robinson’s acquittal.
United States vs. 2LT Jack R. Robinson, a trial by general court-martial, began at 1345 at Camp Hood on August 2, 1944, a mere twenty-six days after the incident that precipitated it.
Preliminary matters such as the accused’s defense counsel selection, challenges to members (Robinson and his team made none), and swearing of the government and members were handled by the TJA and the President. Robinson was then arraigned on the two remaining charges.
The record reflected that that the government did not make an opening statement. Though the record does not specifically mention that the defense made no opening statement, it is unlikely that one was made. The Manual for Courts-Martial allowed for the defense to make an opening “immediately following the [government’s] opening statement.” If the government made no opening at the outset of trial, the defense could make one only in “exceptional cases.”
The first witness called by the government was, in fact, a defense witness. 2nd Lt. Howard B. Campbell, of Robinson’s new unit, Company C, 758th Tank Battalion was called to identify that the accused was in fact 2nd Lt. Jack R. Robinson.
Campbell was asked if he knew the accused and if he was present in the courtroom. Campbell pointed to his friend and replied “yes, sir.”
This process of identifying the accused at the very start of the government’s case-in-chief was the standard practice of the time. With many millions of men serving in uniform, a witness to identify that the accused at the defense table was the individual named in the charge sheet would have been necessary to prevent cases of mistaken identity.
The Government’s Case
The government’s first witness was Capt. Gerald Bear.
On direct examination, Bear relayed to the court the circumstances of how he met Robinson on the night of July 6, 1944, the general layout of the two adjoining rooms with the Dutch door separating them, and which military members were present at the MP station.
Bear testified that he had to order Robinson away from the door “on several occasions” as Bear was speaking to Wigginton, the MPs and Pfc. Mucklerath.
He described Robinson complying with these orders by sarcastically bowing, and saluting him with his palms facing out in an exaggerated manner, and replying sarcastically “O.K., Sir. O.K., Sir. O.K., Sir.” Bear then described several other acts, like Robinson’s slow manner of walking and speech that he found “contemptuous and disrespectful.”
The defense objected to this testimony as conclusory. The Law Member sustained the objection, but the tactic backfired as the TJA now had ample reason to go over in detail these acts that formed the basis of Bear’s belief that Robinson was disrespectful.
Bear’s direct testimony would end with the issue that the defense would attack time and again in its case-in-chief: the manner and condition in which Robinson left the MP complex and returned to McCloskey Hospital.
According to Bear, in the early hours of July 7, Robinson argued with him about the need to return to McCloskey Hospital under police escort. Robinson had a pass and believed he was free to be released. On the stand, Bear claimed that he “heard enough” of this argument and threatened to “lock [Robinson] up” if he did not return with the MPs.
At the outset of cross-examination, the defense — led by 1st Lt. Johnson — hoped to present Bear as out of control and argumentative. He began by exploring a statement that Bear made on direct, that he had “lost control of the lieutenant.”
Johnson fended off a government objection that the question was not material to the charged offenses and elicited testimony on the heated manner in which Bear and Robinson would interact while Robinson was trying to take a statement to the stenographer present on July 6. The defense made headway by presenting Bear’s complaints that Robinson was speaking too quickly for the stenographer as trivial and routine, considering that Bear had experienced such conduct from other individuals giving statements in his experience as an MP.
The defense next questioned Bear on the conditions of Robinson’s return to the hospital in the early morning hours of July 7 under MP escort.
Demonstrating heavy-handed action by Bear in releasing Robinson under escort would be a theme throughout the court-martial. In an unusual twist, the defense’s resistance to this line of questioning did not come from the government, but from a member of the court. Lt. Col. Perman, who likely was also an attorney at some point in his career, objected to questioning along these lines as outside the scope of the charged offenses and outside the scope of the direct examination.
The defense countered that the line of questioning responded to Bear’s direct testimony that the accused was unwilling to obey the order to return to the hospital. Maj. Shippey, the Law Member, overruled Lt. Col. Perman’s objection. After some back-peddling on Bear’s part over the nature of his order, the defense finally triumphed when Bear testified that he had placed Robinson in “arrest in quarters.” Bear’s heavy-handed action was now in evidence.
The defense scored another quick victory by impeaching Bear. He testified that his sworn statement of July 7 indicated that he put Robinson “at ease” in the waiting room of the MP station while he took other witness statements. This contradicted the testimony he had given moments earlier under direct.
The latter half of the defense’s cross-examination of Bear demonstrated its attempts to bring out, through Bear’s testimony, Robinson’s racially-charged experience on the bus and at the bus station.
The defense, knowing that Robinson’s sworn statement had been brought up during direct, attempted to elicit the facts contained within the sworn statement through Bear.
After this approach was objected to by court-martial member Lt. Col. Perman, the defense reasoned: “I am attempting to bring out whether or not there was an atmosphere [in the interview room], the background of this whole case should be before this court.”
The objection was sustained. The bus incident would not come to light through this witness.
On a brief redirect and recross, seeking to gain clarification as to Bear’s order to Robinson to remain “at ease,” the members had an opportunity to ask questions of the witness. Two members, Capt. Moore and Capt. Spencer, questioned the compulsory nature of the transportation that Bear had arranged to take Robinson back to McCloskey Hospital.
Bear responded reasonably, that “at that hour of the morning busses were not running on a regular schedule” and more to the point just “wanted him to go.” At this point, Capt. James H. Carr, himself African-American, and undoubtedly Robinson’s greatest champion among the members, took a turn to get answers from Bear. He asked Bear point-blank, “Was he [Robinson] under arrest,” to which Bear replied, “Yes, sir.” Carr would follow up two questions later with: “You wanted to make sure to send him where you wanted him to go, so you arrested him?”
Bear equivocated. “Yes, we call it arrest in quarters.”
Maj. Mowder, the UCLA graduate, would squeeze out of Bear the fact that Robinson had no choice but to return the hospital with the escorts. “If busses had been available, would you have let him go back by himself?”
To which Bear would reply that he would not have released Robinson on his own.He specifically ordered him back to the hospital. Capt. Carr then made the statement (that was perfunctorily styled as a question by the court-reporter) that “arrest in quarters can carry no bodily restrictions.” After Bear admitted that he considered him in that status, Carr ended with “you admit that you sent three M.P.’s [sic] to see that he got back to where you decided to send him?”
Capt. Carr had highlighted Bear’s overzealous enforcement of the matter.
Turning to the topic of what Bear intended when he put Robinson “at ease,” Capt. Carr launched a string of salient inquires during another round of questions. When Bear gave him an evasive answer, Carr bluntly stated, “I want the question answered; was he at ease while he was leaning on the gate . . . ?”
Bear equivocated more before Carr got to the heart of the matter and said, “I do not see that the manner in which he leaned on the gate had anything to do with you, if you had not given him an order commanding him to attention . . . .”
Capt. Campbell, the African-American physician, honed in on Bear’s description of Robinson’s supposed disrespectful, rolling walk. No doubt, attempting to ascertain whether there was something medically amiss with his gait, Capt. Campbell asked the Law Member if they could see a demonstration of Robinson walking.
Maj. Shippey wisely objected, saying that the defense could present it at a later time if Robinson and his attorneys desired.
The cross-examination of Capt. Bear ended with an attempt at impeachment by 1st Lt. Johnson, the Individual Counsel. “Captain, is it true the Hospital called you the next day and asked if Lt. Robinson was supposed to be in arrest in quarters and you answered, 'no?'”
The question was objected to by the TJA and sustained. But, it was too late. The defense strategy to show that Bear was a petty authoritarian had worked perfectly. Most of the tough questions at the court-martial were asked by the two African-American court-martial members of the government’s primary white witness.
The government’s second and final witness in its case-in-chief was Capt. Wigginton, the camp laundry officer who served as the officer of the day on July 6 and 7. His direct examination was remarkable only in that he testified in a minutes-long narrative relaying the events of July 7.
His testimony largely mirrored that of Bear’s: Robinson continually interrupted Wigginton’s briefing to Bear and would not sit in the chair in the waiting room, as directed by Bear. He corroborated the earlier testimony by Bear that Robinson rendered sloppy salutes and bowed to him at the Dutch door.
On cross-examination, Wigginton’s responses proved unhelpful to the defense and highlighted the defense’s biggest courtroom weakness: they violated the old litigation maxim to never ask a question on cross-examination that the attorney does not know the answer to.
The defense counsel’s attempt to pick apart Wigginton’s story or to establish his own personal bias was unsuccessful. Again, due to a government objection that the bus station incident was unrelated to the charged offenses, the defense was unable to bring about any evidence of the bus or bus station incident.
Though inartful, the defense had sufficiently signaled that there was more than what was being presented at court-martial. Capt. Carr picked up on the defense’s signals that there was more than meets the eye and the members were not being told the full story and was the lone court-martial member to ask Capt. Wigginton questions.
Carr comprehended that something had happened to put Robinson into an aggravated state in the MP station and because he was not provided the opportunity to explain himself in his own voice to Bear, he reacted in a negative manner.
The Defense’s Case
The defense of 2nd Lt. Robinson began with its most powerful voice: the accused’s.
After being advised of his rights by the Law Member, including the right to remain silent, and being sworn in by the TJA, Robinson took the stand in his defense. In the opening moments of Robinson’s direct testimony, while Robinson was reciting some biographical information about himself, and again during his explanation on the night of July 6, the defense counsel wisely asked him to slow his speech.
This was a wise ploy if done intentionally, because it illustrated Robinson had a quick manner of speech, something Ms. Wilson, the stenographer on duty the night of July 6, and Capt. Bear thought was an intentional act of disobedience.
On direct, Robinson explained his side of the events on the evening of 6-7 July. He was extremely cautious not to bring up the incidents on the bus or at the bus station, likely because it would have drawn a sustainable relevance objection.
Instead, his story began with the vague explanation that he arrived at the MP station “on some matters.” Robinson explained briefly his initial report to Wigginton, the officer of the day, and stated that he was present when Mucklerath gave his version of the incident at the bus station. On direct, Robinson stated that while Mucklerath was relating events to Wigginton, he would interrupt Mucklerath to “refresh his memory and correct his statement.”
He explained that upon Bear’s arrival some time later, he became frustrated that Mucklerath was being interviewed first. When Robinson asked why, he was told by Bear that Mucklerath was a “witness” to Robinson’s actions and that he was not to come into the interview room until told to do so.
Finally, in the middle of his direct examination, Robinson was able to put forward the precipitating event that led to the charges. At last, he could explain that he was the victim of the ugly racial animus of the era. In correcting Mucklerath’s story, Robinson stated that he did not threaten Mucklerath for no reason.
He then related that Mucklerath had called him a “n—–” while he was sitting in the MP vehicle while waiting to be transported to the MP station. Robinson freely admitted under oath that he told Mucklerath that if he ever called him a n—– again “he would break him in two.”
What came next — the question by defense counsel and the response given — is arguably the most poetic response ever captured in a U.S. military court-martial.
Q – Let me interrupt you, Lieutenant—do you know what a n—– is?
A – 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—– 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—– by this private or by anybody else. When I made this statement that I did not like to be called n—–, I told the Captain, I said, “If you call me a n—–, 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—– at all, I am a negro, but not a n—–.”
This question and Robinson’s answer could not have been prepared prior to court-martial, given the limited interactions Robinson had with his defense. Robinson’s response was extemporaneous and captures the mindset of this future American icon.
Following this explanation to the court, the defense dove into the details of Robinson’s version of events. Robinson claimed with respect to the charge of disrespectful behavior that he “did not recall” bowing and executing the so-called sloppy salutes that Bear and Wigginton claimed he gave them.
To the charge of failing to obey Bear’s order to move away from the doorway and to sit in a chair in the opposite room, Robinson explained that he complied with Bear’s order to get away from the door, but that Bear did not give an order to sit in a chair. He claimed to have interrupted Bear and Mucklerath just one time the entire evening.
Robinson also returned to his confrontation with the civilian stenographer that evening, Ms. Wilson. Robinson stated that after demonstrating he disagreed with her dictation, her racial animus became manifest when she “picked up her purse and said ‘I don’t have to make excuses to him’ and went out.”
Finally, at the end of Robinson’s direct, parts of the story regarding the bus station incident trickled out in front of the court-martial members.
Robinson was asked by his defense team about his conversation with his Battalion Executive Officer, Maj. Charles Wingo, on the phone at about the time he was being released by Bear. Robinson related to the members that he explained to Wingo he believed that the reasons Bear did not want him taking a bus back was because he would “get in trouble in the busses.”
Robinson, without pause, and perhaps to put forth as much of his story before the members as he could before drawing an objection, immediately relayed a piece of what happened on the bus.
“I abided by the Texas Law [on the way to Camp Hood], but I knew there was no Jim Crow rule on the Post and the bus driver had tried to make me move to the rear, and I told him that I would not move back.”
The defense, seeing on opportunity to expand the narrative quickly, followed up by asking what his seating position on the bus had been. Robinson followed this lead and quickly answered “four seats from the rear . . . a little better than half way [from the back].”
The prosecution, mindful that the bus incident was a liability to their case, quickly attempted to end the matter by objecting to the line of testimony, stating that it “had nothing to do with this specification” and that “what happened on the bus . . . had no place in this case.” The Law Member agreed and sustained the objections, claiming that he did not see the materiality of it.
Robinson’s direct examination was followed by the prosecution’s cross-examination. The TJA, cognizant of the testimony that Robinson had brought forward evidence that Pfc. Mucklerath had called him a “n—–,” attempted to staunch the bleeding.
Fortunately for Robinson, the TJA trial team, who appeared to have been more experienced in the courtroom than his own attorneys, botched their objective. After setting the scene at the MP station, the trial team attempted to make Robinson appear less than credible by calling into question why no one else had heard him being called “n—–.”
Playing with fire, the TJA asked Robinson again if Mucklerath called him a n—–, to which Robinson answered in the affirmative. The TJA, back on his heels, quickly followed up by confirming that the insult did not occur at the MP station with any witnesses who had testified thus far in order to illustrate that there were no witness to the insult.
The TJA then made a series of mistakes by breaking two basic tenets of cross-examination: he began asking open-ended questions that he did not know the answers to. Certain that Robinson was not insulted at the MP station, he asked him if anyone insulted him there, to which Robinson replied that Capt. Bear did.
The TJA quickly established that Bear, the government’s main witness himself did not call Robinson a n—–. The TJA asked whether Bear had provoked him in any way that evening, to which Robinson replied that Bear had indeed done so. Inexplicably, the TJA asked to explain “in what way” Bear had done so, an open question that Robinson then used to illustrate Bear’s anger when issuing him the order not to interrupt him during the Mucklerath interview. The TJA then spent the next few minutes establishing through Robinson that Bear had a proper purpose in questioning Mucklerath individually without interruption.
The TJA, concerned that Robinson had impeached Wigginton on direct, turned the court’s attention to the conduct of the officer of the day for July 7. The TJA asked Robinson if he believed that Wigginton had lied on the stand minutes earlier when he testified about witnessing Robinson bowing and saluting.Robinson, hesitant at first to call a fellow officer a liar, stated that he did. The TJA then listed every officer Robinson had interacted with that night and asked him if they had insulted him or had bias against him which Robinson replied that they had not.
The rest of the cross-examination was more routine.
Robinson withstood the TJA’s scrutiny of his side of the events that evening. The TJA, concerned that Robinson’s interactions with the stenographer had showed her racial bias, asked him to read aloud an excerpt from the Manual for Courts-Martial. This attempted to demonstrate that Robinson slowed his speech in a facetious way when asked by the stenographer to slow down. The cross-examination ended with Robinson again being given another chance to explain his exit from the MP station under arrest to no benefit to the government.
Robinson’s testimony was over. He had conducted himself well on the stand under both direct and cross-examination. His answers were respectful and poised. He never contradicted himself nor allowed his emotions to get the better of him.
The remainder of Robinson’s defense would come in the form of the “good Soldier defense.”
This form of defense allows Soldiers to introduce evidence of the good military character through testimony in an attempt to distinguish the Soldier from the charged offense. In other words, a “good” Soldier would not commit the charged offense. The 1943 MCM contained these instructions: “The accused may introduce evidence of his own good character, including evidence of his military record and standing in order to show the probability of his innocence.”
The defense called four character witnesses: Lt. Col. Paul Bates,his former battalion Commander in the 761st Tank Battalion; Capt. James R. Lawson, a white officer and his former company commander in B Company, 761st Tank Battalion; and two fellow lieutenants, including 2nd Lt. Harold Kingsley and 2nd Lt. Howard Campbell, who had previously been the government’s identifying witness in its case-in-chief.
Each were asked a few basic questions in a classic good Soldier defense fashion. Whether they knew the accused, how long they had known him, whether they knew his reputation, and whether he had a good reputation at his “Camp, Post, or Station.”
This would culminate in two questions about his abilities as a Soldier and, in the case of his former commanders, Bates and Lawson, whether they would like to have him as a member of their command. All four witnesses reported that he had a good reputation and that he had excellent abilities as a Soldier. In the case of Bates, he was asked how he would rate him on a “66-1.” Known as a fitness report, this was the Officer Evaluation Report of its time.
Bates replied that he would rate him as “Excellent.”
The government did not cross-examine a single defense character witness. Though they did object when Lt. Col. Bates brought forward that Robinson was a “well known athlete” as unresponsive. Though three of the four witnesses had known Robinson for only a few months, the evidence brought out through these witnesses was clear: Robinson’s character was such that he was not the kind of officer to disobey an order or to be disrespectful.
With that, the defense of Robinson rested. However, it would be in the government’s rebuttal that the standout moment of the court-martial would come.
In rebuttal, the government called 1st Lt. George Cribari, a Medical Service Corps doctor, to rebut Robinson’s testimony that Capt. Bear showed animosity to Robinson.
First Lt. Cribari did rebut this testimony and countered that it had been Robinson himself who was “very rude.” In a dry moment of testimony, Cribari demonstrated for the record Robinson’s body language for the court. Maj. Shippey, the Law Member, would then read these movements into the record such as “you shook your head from side to side” and “you put your hand in your pocket.”
Upon cross-examination, Robinson’s defense pursued a few short, unhelpful lines of questioning on Robinson’s slowed pace of speech to the stenographer. Court-martial member Capt. James Carr rose yet again to pointedly question a witness in the government’s case. Carr questioned why Cribari felt putting one’s hands in their pocket was disrespectful and what Cribari meant when he testified that Robinson “grimaced” at Bear.
Cribari, dryly, gave a very technical response: “grimacing is done by the muscles of the face.” In one of the fleeting moments of mirth in the court-martial, Carr then himself contorted his face and asked Cribari if he was grimacing.
Next, the TJA called Cpl. George Elwood, the MP who met Robinson at the Central Bus Station and accompanied him (and Mucklerath) back to the MP station. Cpl. Elwood was called to rebut Robinson’s testimony that he was not given an order to sit in a reception room chair.
He also rebutted Robinson’s denial that he bowed and gave the contested, so-called sloppy salutes. Cpl. Elwood’s direct came off as passionless and reasonable, and was limited to his observations of Robinson — not how Elwood construed his tone or mannerisms, as with the previous witnesses. Cpl. Elwood’s cross-examination by the defense illustrated no personal bias. He was a brief and persuasive witness for the government.
Expecting to end rebuttal with a third witness to contradict Robinson’s testimony, the government made a spectacular error.
They called to the stand Pfc. Ben Mucklerath, the Soldier whom Robinson accused of calling him a “n—–.” On the stand the government asked only one substantive question: “Did you call [Robinson] a n—–?”Mucklerath quickly answered, “No, sir.”
The defense’s cross-examination of Mucklerath was the climactic moment of the court-martial. The defense first asked him if he remembered Robinson saying that if he “ever called him a n—– again he would break [Mucklerath] in two?”
Mucklerath responded that he did remember Robinson make that statement. The defense then asked Mucklerath why Robinson would make that statement considering Mucklerath had explicitly not called him the epithet. Mucklerath stammered that he did not know what Robinson was thinking and that Mucklerath was merely “repeating something” that he had heard.”
The defense posed two final questions:
Q – Do you deny that you went to the MP [Cpl. Elwood] on the truck at the bus station and said “Do you have the n—– lieutenant in the car”; do you deny that you made that statement?
A – At no time did I use the word “n—–.”
Q – You deny that you made that statement?
A – I never used the word “n—–” at any time, sir.
With that, the government rested its rebuttal case. The trap was set.
Immediately, the defense recalled Cpl. Elwood in surrebuttal. The defense asked Elwood only one substantive question that would prove devastating: “Did [Pfc. Mucklerath] ever ask you at any time if you had a n—– lieutenant in your car?”
Elwood, ever the bias-free witness, answered: “Yes, sir, he did at the bus station.”
The defense rested, having proven the incident at the MP station was predicated on the use of a slur by an enlisted Soldier upon an officer. Only in the final moments of the court-martial did 2nd Lt. Robinson’s later indignant demeanor and frustration at the MP station make sense to the members. Both sides rested after the huge revelation that not only was Robinson called a racial slur, but that one of the government’s own witnesses against him would so easily lie under oath.
After the presentation of evidence, both sides made closing arguments. Closing arguments were not and are still not considered evidence. As such, the court reporter did not transcribe what was said.
As a result, these arguments are lost to time, although Robinson recalled: “My lawyer [Johnson] 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.”
Also unknown is the length of deliberations on guilt or innocence. Given the relatively short length of the entire procedure, likely the members did not deliberate long. Because the ballots were secret, the number of members who voted guilty and not guilty will forever be unknown.
However, the results of the court-martial are certainly known. At 1800, 2nd Lt. Jack R. Robinson and his defense counsel rose to hear the verdict of the nine members of the court.
Col. Compton, the court-martial President, read aloud 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.”
United States v. 2LT Jack R. Robinson was over.
A Career Ends and Another Begins
Despite the acquittal, the close of the court-martial ultimately brought with it the end of 2nd Lt. Robinson’s military career.
Aggrieved by his treatment by the Army, Robinson remembered in his 1972 autobiography that following his court-martial, “I was pretty much fed up with the service. ”
Even before the court-martial, Robinson knew that because of his Army retiring board finding of the week before the court-martial on July 21, he could not ship overseas with the 761st Tank Battalion.
Robinson wrote the Army Adjutant General on August 25 and requested to be retired from the service due to his medical issues.
Weeks later, Robinson reported to Camp Breckenridge, Kentucky, for several months, serving as a morale officer before receiving his honorable discharge “by reason of physical disqualification.” The irony that a future hall of famer and Rookie of the Year was physically disqualified from the Army before his entry into professional baseball should not be lost on anyone.
In August 1945, one year after his acquittal, Robinson’s famed meeting with Branch Rickey would occur at Rickey’s office in downtown Brooklyn.
Rickey was the President and General Manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers and offered Robinson the opportunity in this meeting to become the first African-American player to break the Major League baseball color barrier. Rickey would explain that he had searched extensively for the right player to endure the inevitable hardships that would accompany the first African-American player to break the barrier.
Rickey told him that he was looking for a principled and restrained player with “guts,” but the courage “not to fight back” and lash out.
Given the exhaustive research into Robinson’s background that Rickey conducted, he must have known about his court-martial and the acquittal 12 months earlier. The court-martial, reported on by the national African-American press, would have reached Rickey’s ears.
This major life event, in which Robinson stood firm against prejudiced opposition and faith in the system to run its course, knowing that it would prove his innocence, was likely a significant factor in Rickey’s selection.