History can flip on a dime.
“You better quit f — — — with me,” said Lt. Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Cavalry Officer in the United States Army.
Lieutenant Jack Robinson was headed to Europe when fate intervened. An incident borne of racism would lead him in a different direction and mark him for bigger things, where he would etch is name into the American storybook.
Yet, Robinson’s time in the United States Army tells a lot more about the man Jackie Robinson was, and underscores why Branch Rickey chose the right man to wear the aspirations of an entire race on his broad shoulders.
Instead of Europe as a morale officer, Robinson was playing baseball in Kansas City with the Monarchs. On August 28, 1945, Jackie Robinson was able to become the protagonist in Branch Rickey’s audacious beta test in equal opportunity.
The baseball field wasn’t the first arena in which Robinson showed his mettle, acumen and ability to galvanize support. When Robinson set foot upon Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field with the Dodgers in 1947, this was not the former cavalry officer’s first rodeo as either a sports star or catalyst for social change. If you want to see peak Jackie Robinson, watch those grainy YouTube videos of him on the gridiron with UCLA.
Robinson was both a leader and race man from the start. Robinson was among the first commissioned black officers, a Second Lieutenant in the Cavalry. Assigned to Fort Riley, Kansas as a morale officer, Lt. Robinson quickly noticed a gross injustice and took up his first fight against bigotry on behalf of others, a harbinger of his life’s mandate.
The white soldiers were allowed free reign of the recreation and café area, the “PX,” or postal exchange, in military parlance while the black officers were given nary a seat. Even to the surprise of his own men, all black, Robinson decided to broach the issue with white brass to whom he reported.
“My statement was met with scorn,” writes Robinson in his 1972 autobiography. “I realized that not only did these soldiers feel nothing could be done, but they did not believe any black officer would have the guts to protest. Their pessimism only served to challenge me more.
While talking to former Dodgers General Manager Fred Claire, who orchestrated the first retirement of Robinson’s number 42 at Dodgers Stadium he spoke of true greatness; it was not merely the ability to be excel but to take others along for the ride. Koufax had it. Kobe had it. Pedro had it. They all did it in different ways but shared that common thread. Jackie defined it, and that innate quality transcended sport.
If his men weren’t shocked enough at having the impudence to challenge the status quo in a largely segregated Army, before even — well, Jackie Robinson, they were even more nonplused when their Lieutenant came to them and said he had spoken to the Army brass and the powers that be would allocate them designated seats in the postal exchange. A small concession yes, but a large victory in that it showed his men that they were entitled to same basic rights and should so advocate for them in the face of injustice. The 24-year-old Jackie Robinson had garnered his first civil rights victory. The first of many.
He would thereafter have the unabated support and confidence of his men. The Army decided that Lt. Robinson would be quintessentially suited to help lead his men into combat and accompany a tank battalion to Europe as a morale officer. They trusted him and looked to like many to follow saw something special in him.
It was not to be.
Robinson was transferring to Fort Hood, Texas. The base named after a Confederate General John Bell Hood was in the segregated south, from where Mallie Robinson had moved her children to California to pursue a better life.
History can flip on a dime.
Robinson, an Army officer was sitting with a light-skinned friend when he was asked by a civilian bus driver to move the back of the bus. Robinson flatly refused. He was confronted first by the bus driver, then a mob of angry civilians, who took exception for Robinson’s demand of respect.
As an Officer in the United States Army he demanded the respect ostensibly accorded to one. The mob of rapacious Jim Crow supporters were aghast that a black man had the gall to demand respect He made his position clear to one: “You better quit f — — — with me.” He told a man who had called him that if the heard the N-word again he would be broken in two. It was not again heard, according to the Army file.
Pegged for his leadership skills to accompany the legendary 761st tank battalion, whose heroism shined at the battle of the bulge, instead, he was part of a court’s martial. Robinson was acquitted on all charges. On July 3, 1944, Robinson was decommissioned and given his honorable discharge.
Jackie Robinson was destined for greater things.
This year instead of celebrating Jackie Robinson Day April 15, 1947, COVID-19 afforded Major League Baseball the opportunity to commemorate August 28, 1945, when Branch Rickey and Robinson first met and conceived to change history by ending segregation in baseball on August 28, 2020. Eighteen years later, on August 28, 1963 Jackie and Rachel Robinson were in front of the Lincoln Memorial with Dr. King and John Lewis for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The moral courage came from Rickey, the intentional fortitude and strength of character from Robinson. The Jackie Robinson Project at George Washington University has petitioned to have Fort. Hood changed to Fort. Robinson. If America wants its military heroes clad in bronzed perched atop a horse, Lt. Robinson on his mount would make a fitting monument to courage and heroism.
History can flip on a dime.
Just beyond the Jackie Robinson Rotunda, the New York Mets where took a courageous stand at Citi Field On the eve of Jackie Robinson Day 2020, another police shooting prompted the Mets to walk off the field after a 42-second moment of silence to call attention to racial injustice and police brutality. The Mets, the National League team in the city where Robinson played were masters of ceremony when Robinson’s number was retired throughout baseball.
The Dodgers, Robinson’s for whom Robinson played in Brooklyn before they moved to Los Angeles in 1958, elected not to play the evening before.
The same fundamental issues that Robinson fought in 1943, and kept fighting until his death in 1972, had intervened and underscored the relevance of Robinson’s legacy today.
When he retired in 1956, Robinson used his platform and that same transcendent strength of will to become a formidable player in the burgeoning civil rights movement with his voice, his pen and his time, quitting his job as the first black Vice President of a major company at Chock Full O’ Nuts to chair the NAACP Freedom Fund. As Washington, he was with Dr. King in Birmingham and used his prolific pen to write a weekly column that gave voice to issues of social equality.
In Robinson’s 1964 book “Baseball Has Done It,” about the experience of integration in baseball in context of the civil rights movement Branch Rickey notes:
The big challenge for the Negro today is to fight for the right to be equal and then qualify as an equal. Ans not less important is the challenge not to compromise for less than equality.
“I felt [Jackie] had expressed we are making progress, but we have a long way to go,” said Claire, who was with Robinson at his last appearance, the 1972 World Series, where he used his platform to call attention to the lack of Black management in baseball. “I think we have to acknowledge on some front we are making progress, but we have a long way to go.”
Jackie Robinson still speaks to us today.
Dominic Smith, evoked Jackie Robinson on the field when he, like many others since exiled NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, knelt for the national anthem in protest. “I cannot stand and sing the anthem. I cannot salute the flag I know I am a black man in white world,” penned Robinson in 1972. Robinson was a patriot. At the dais, when Smith emoted, he allowed many who otherwise wouldn’t to viscerally feel the pain that racism inflicts on Black Americans.
“Jackie, his legacy, from every standpoint, could not be more relevant than it is today. I think that everything, the way he led his life, the words he left us and the way that Rachel has been able to perpetuate that legacy, it’s extremely important…and I would hope a focal point for all of us in terms of the meaning of life and the meaning of caring for one another — It couldn’t be more relevant.”
“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.”