Military Career

In 1942, Robinson was drafted into the army and stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas. The military was less than 1 percent African-American in 1942 but demographics were steadily changing with the implementation of a universal draft.

Lieutenant Robinson Being Saluted C. 1943. Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Lieutenant Robinson Being Saluted C. 1943. Via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Representing a small minority, African-Americans had very few opportunities for advancement within the largely segregated organization. The systematic devaluing of African-American enlisted men created a morale problem the higher-ups could not ignore.

Robinson, after befriending politically connected heavyweight champion Joe Louis, was admitted to the Officer Candidate’s School and commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1943. As part of his promotion, Robinson served as his platoon’s morale leader. Here, Robinson took every opportunity to protest practices that discriminated against African-Americans. Some of these protests involved simply speaking up for equal access to army amenities like the post exchange, other protests required Robinson to endanger his officer status.

One such incident got Robinson court-martialed after a transfer to Fort Hood, near Waco, Texas. After refusing to move to the back of a civilian bus when asked by the driver, Robinson was charged with insubordination, failure to obey a direct order and disrespect toward a superior officer, despite the fact that the order was given by a civilian and he was the highest ranking officer involved. Determined to expose the charges for the racially motivated attacks they were, Robinson contacted the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to ensure his plight received media attention.

Ultimately, the trial exposed the trumped up charges as exaggerations and expressions of racial prejudice rather than actual military offences. The court declared Robinson not guilty and, eager to avoid additional controversy, signed his discharge papers two months later.

Robinson’s time in the military showcases his fearlessness and belief in standing up for equal rights, two qualities that would later prove necessary in tackling baseball’s color barrier.

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