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Welcome to this week’s FaceOff interview.
Reviewer Kristine Morris Gets in the Box with Michael Lee Lanning, Author of The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson
By way of introduction, we asked Michael Lee Lanning to offer a bit of historical perspective on the life and times of Jackie Robinson, the subject of this week’s interview between Michael Lee and reviewer Kristine Morris. A US Army veteran who retired as a lieutenant colonel after more than twenty years in the service, Michael Lee is the author of twenty-six books on military history, sports, and health. Kristine reviewed The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson in the March/April issue of Foreword Reviews. Thanks to the fine people at Stackpole Books (Algonquin) for help in putting author and reviewer in touch.
“What happened in 1944 should not be judged by the standards of 2020. JR’s court martial took place in 1944, only 80 years after the end of slavery in the US. Now in the year 2020, it has been nearly 80 years since the court-martial, placing the event at mid-point between emancipation and today. Viewed from that perspective, it is all the more astonishing that a black boy from a sharecropper’s cabin in rural Georgia could not only become an officer in the US Army but also break the color barrier in major league baseball.
“By 1947, three years after his court-martial, Jackie Robinson polled as second only to Bing Crosby in a national popularity survey among Americans—black and white—above President Truman and Generals Eisenhower and MacArthur. Not until Martin Luther King, Jr. was another black man so well-known and highly esteemed in the US.
“The court-martial was so pivotal because the experience proved to Jackie himself (as well as Branch Rickey, part owner and general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers) that he would stand up for his beliefs and could endure the pressure from doing so—all the while staying within the rules and regulations of the times. Without the court-martial, JR might very well have been a footnote to history rather than the headline.”
Kristine, take it from here.
What led you to your interest in exploring the court-martial of sports icon Jackie Robinson?
I was aware from the success of one of my earlier books—Double T Double Cross: The Firing of Mike Leach by Texas Tech University—that sports books sell well. When I came across the Jackie Robinson story while researching another topic, I immediately saw the potential for a book that combined my interest in military history with the public’s interest in the sports legend. Having been assigned to Fort Hood during my own military career and currently living a half-hour from the post, I have a broad understanding of military race-relations issues as well as evolving attitudes in Central Texas. The more I researched, the more I found that the vast number of JR biographies provide little-to-no information about the court-martial and/or the authors have virtually no understanding of the military and its justice system. I saw an opportunity to “set the record straight” and to provide further insight into how influential this event was for Robinson and baseball.
Why was it that Second Lieutenant Jackie Robinson’s refusal to move to the back of the bus when ordered to do so by the bus driver did not give rise to the same kind of social upheaval as did Rosa Parks’ later defiance of the same order?
It’s simple: There was a war of great magnitude going on. The issues of segregation/integration/equal rights themselves took a back seat to defeating the Axis powers. It should also be noted that the JR incident was spontaneous as opposed to the Rosa Parks incident that was preplanned and organized. Also, Parks was eleven years after JR, and the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum across the country.
What enabled Robinson to have such a strong belief in himself and in the basic fairness of the system that tried him despite the prevalence of Jim Crow laws both in the military and society at large?
His belief in himself came from his upbringing by his family and in his previous experiences in standing up for his rights. Despite the racial climate at the time, his experiences in Pasadena in college, and his early army days had shown him that the system, although flawed, still had an acceptable degree of fairness.
Reading about the strength and courage of Robinson’s mother, Mallie, it was clear that Jackie had been presented with a good example in his formative years. What do you imagine the future might have held for him had his mother not succeeded in moving her family to California, given the way things were for Georgia’s African American population and Robinson’s propensity to stand up for himself in the face of discrimination and injustice?
I am reluctant to speculate on what might have been. However, JR possessed such athletic ability that he likely would have eventually made it to the Major Leagues—but without his experiences in California and the army, it is unlikely he would have come to the attention of Branch Rickey and been the one selected to break the color barrier.
The results of the court-martial revealed that a black man could prevail over white prejudices. Do you believe that the result of the trial was due more to the character of the man being tried, or to the inherent fairness of the system that tried him? Do you believe that the American justice system, military or civilian, gives equal treatment to people of color today?
I am a military historian with little knowledge or experience with civilian courts. The result of the trial of JR shows at least that some degree of fairness existed at the time. I can state that during my time in uniform (1968-1988), the military court system was absolutely fair and equal for all. No changes are necessary. A military court far more mirrors “a jury of peers” than a civilian court.
During the trial, Second Lieutenant Robinson was accused of “disrespect” to Captains Wigginton and Bear, “willfully disobeying” an order from Captain Bear to be seated, as well as having used vulgar language to a civilian. All these offenses allegedly occurred after Robinson’s refusal to move to the back of the bus. Robinson admitted having made it clear that he would not allow anyone to call him a “nigger,” as the word referred to a person who was “low and uncouth,” neither of which described him, nor was he “a machine used in a saw mill for pushing logs into the saws,” as the word was defined in the dictionary. Do you think that the incident really merited the most serious level of court-marital trial? Why or why not? How might it all have been handled differently?
Disrespect in the military is a far more serious offense than in civilian business or news offices. The military deals in life and death, not profit. JR apparently did exert at least a degree of disrespect. However, he had good provocation with having been called a “nigger”. Given the evidence, I do not think it should have ever come to trial. Counseling by his commander would have been adequate.
It appears that one witness, Private Mucklerath, did not tell the truth when he denied having called Lieutenant Robinson a “nigger,” as another witness said that he had heard him do so. Do you believe that Mucklerath should have been punished for lying under oath? Why or why not?
I am not sure he was not punished. He certainly should have been, and definitely would have been today.
Robinson responded to questions with courage and dignity, and pointed out that there was no Jim Crow rule regarding busses operating on the military post. Given your experience in the military and having sat on numerous court-martial boards, do you think Robinson got a fair trial?
Yes, he got a fair trial. He was acquitted. Justice prevailed.
Would you have done anything differently if you had been in charge of trying his case?
He should not have been court-martialed, at least not at the highest level of court. Good leadership on the part of Captains Bear, Wigginton, and others would have led to a non-confrontational conclusion.
Robinson expected to be treated with the same respect as any other officer in the US Army, regardless of color. When asked if he knew what a proper salute was, he replied, “Yes, and I know when I should get one.” It appears that no one commented upon this statement at the time. Would those in the room have recognized the challenge Robinson was giving his interrogators?
I am not certain it was a “challenge” so much as a statement of fact. It is true that all Robinson sought was to be treated like any other officer.
What would you most like readers to take away from reading your book?
The court-martial of JR was the pivotal event in his life and his future as the first black in Major League Baseball. If he had not been court-martialed, he would have likely accompanied his unit to Europe where seventy percent of its officers were killed or wounded. Even if he had survived the war, his unit was not discharged until 1946. He would have never come to the attention of Branch Rickey and would not have been selected to break the color barrier. With his skills, he likely would have eventually made it to the major leagues but his career would have been shorter and not sufficient to gain him the Hall of Fame. Finally, the book shows (with the help of historical perspectives) the racial conditions of the time and that, despite the prejudices exhibited, fairness and justice could still prevail.