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Robinson Stepped Up, Wouldn’t Back Down
NEW YORK—He wouldn’t back down from the fastball, and he wouldn’t back down in the face of racism.
And were he alive, Jackie Robinson would celebrate his 87th birthday on Tuesday.
In 1944, 11 years before Rosa Parks’s heroic refusal to move to the “colored” section of a bus triggered the modern Civil Rights movement, Robinson did the exact same thing in a far less-publicized case.
FROM THE LATE 1800s through the mid-20th century, the lynching of black men in the United States was rampant. The Tuskegee Institute conservatively estimates that of 4,742 lynchings between 1882 and 1951, about a quarter of the victims were accused of raping white women.
Other “crimes” included disrespect to white people and registering to vote.
On July 6, 1944, Robinson was a second lieutenant with the 761st Tank Battalion at Fort Hood, Texas. That day, he happened to board a bus at the same time as a friend of his – the light-skinned African-American wife of one of his fellow black officers.
They sat together near the middle of the bus as it began wending its way through the huge Army installation. This is what happened next, as Robinson told it in his 1972 autobiography, “I Never Had It Made”:
“The driver glanced into his rear-view mirror and saw what he thought was a white woman talking with a black second lieutenant. He stopped the bus and came back to order me to move to the rear.
“I had no intention of being intimidated into moving to the back of the bus. The driver returned to his seat, assuming I would obey his order. When he noted I was not moving, he returned and shouted that if I didn’t move, he would cause me plenty of trouble.
“I couldn’t care less about his causing me trouble. I’d been in trouble all my life, but I knew what my rights were.”
Robinson was indeed within his rights. The Army had recently published new regulations barring racial discrimination on any vehicle operating on its bases.
As a result, the Army brass who wanted to punish this “uppity” black officer could not press charges for his refusal to move.
Instead, they court-martialed him for alleged insubordination to the officer who interrogated him about the incident.
ROBINSON WAS HELPED greatly by black soldiers who wrote letters to the editors of their papers back home. The Pittsburgh Courier and the Chicago Defender, two of the country’s most powerful black newspapers, gave the matter a lot of publicity.
As Robinson put it, “The Army, sensitive to this kind of spotlight, knew that if I was unfairly treated, it would not be a secret.”
He also had a bit of luck: The first lawyer assigned to him resigned from the case, saying that he had no “arguments against segregation.” But his replacement blew the Army’s case to smithereens.
Robinson was acquitted of all charges, and was honorably discharged.
JULES TYGIEL WROTE in the August/September 1984 issue of American Heritage Magazine that if Robinson had been convicted, “it is doubtful that Branch Rickey would have chosen him to integrate professional baseball. In the climate of postwar America, a black man banished from the Army could have found little popular support.”
But Robinson was exonerated, Rickey did choose Robinson, and the rest is well-known.
In 1947, the 28-year-old Robinson became the first black person to play professional major-league baseball, and won baseball’s first “Rookie of the Year” Award (which has since been named after him).
He not only opened the doors of pro sports to players of color, but also played so well in his 10-year career that he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He remains one of the most revered athletes in history.
Today would have been Jackie Robinson’s 87th birthday. As Black History Month begins, all baseball fans – and all Americans – should pause to tip our caps to the man who wouldn’t back down.