“The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson:
The Baseball Legend’s Battle for Civil Rights
during World War II”
Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning
The publishing info:
Released Feb. 21
The review in 90 feet or less
On what would have been the 73rd anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s first MLB game with the Dodgers, and the 16th revival of the MLB-wide wearing of No. 42 on the official “Jackie Robinson Day” — the Dodgers had a 7:10 p.m. game scheduled at home against the Cardinals — we keep alive our tradition of finding a Robinson-related book to review on this day, amidst this series.
This one may be among the most important, a unique in-depth look at a single incident three years earlier, in July 1944, that would establish a defining moment in his life’s journey.
Then, he was 2nd Lt. Jack R. Robinson — pre “Jackie” — age 25, a couple years removed from leaving UCLA early so he could pursue work to help his family. Navigating the Jim Crow laws of Texas while stationed in the Army as a cavalry-trained officer reassigned to Camp Hood, about 40 miles southwest of Waco. He was attached to the 761st Tank Battalion, a tank unit later in the European theater’s Battle of the Bulge.
Eleven years before Rosa Parks became a person of historical importance for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white passenger, Robinson effectively did the same thing, on a public street, in a public bus, his fame already known in the region based on his athletic career at UCLA.
We won’t retell a lot of what happened, but focus here more on who is telling the story this time, and why that matters.
First, the author: Michael Lee Lanning, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, served more than 20 years, as an infantry platoon leader, reconnaissance platoon leader, and rifle company commander in the 2d Battalion, 3d Infantry of the 199th Light Infantry Brigade in Vietnam and was one of the one of the youngest company commanders in the Vietnam War.
Upon his return, he wrote or co-wrote more than two dozen non-fiction books about military history starting in 1987 with “The Only War We Had: A Platoon Leader’s Journal of Vietnam” for Ballantine Books/Random House: “In my year in Vietnam, I walked the booby-trapped rice paddies of the Delta, searching for the elusive Viet Cong, and later macheted my way through the triple-canopy jungle, fighting the North Vietnamese Regulars. . . . I sweated, thirsted, hunted, killed. Somewhere in all my experiences, I overlapped the situations of nearly every infantryman and many others who served.”
His only previous sports title: “Double T – Double Cross – Double Take: The Firing of Coach Mike Leach by Texas Tech University,” in 2011 by Scottsdale Books (updated in 2017 by self publishing).
But if you were to pick an author with the best background to look into this …
The greatest problem of writers with the inclusion, analysis and conclusions about Robinson’s time in military uniform and his court-martial is that none thus far have had previous military experience of their own. This has greatly limited their understanding of Jackie’s service in the U.S. Army, the ‘move to the back of the bus incident,’ and the military court-martial system and procedures.
Lanning accesses more than 450 pages of Robinson’s military service and court-martial, including medical records that he eventually used to become discharged for fear of acerbating an injury. But as Lanning notes, there “are many things in Jackie’s army file (as with those of all veterans) that are difficult to understand or confusing because of gaps caused by records that are missing or never filed. For the researcher who has not served, the military terms, abbreviations, and acronyms are difficult to decipher and at times misinterpreted.”
As for the publisher: Stackpole Books started 90 years ago by the Stackpole family, finding titles to go with outdoors, crafts and military history, spreading to fly fishing, nature guides and Civil War and World War II events. Rowman & Littlefield bought it in 2014.
As for the subject: It’s one we became aware of some 20 years ago – the 1990 made-for-TV movie airing on TNT with a very young Andre Braugher as Robinson, and Ruby Dee as his Jackie’s mother (an homage to the fact she played his wife in the 1950 “The Jackie Robinson Story” for those who remember that).
Then in 2016, PBS aired a four-hour, two part documentary on Robinson that covered this, produced by Ken Burns.
Lanning, who lives in Lampasas, Tex., just west of Fort Hood, explains that in his research, most stories simply “gloss over Jack’s time in the U.S. Army.” He notes that Arnold Rampersad’s “Jackie Robinson: A Biography” has the most detail (10 pages, “including some inaccuracies” about the court-martial.) The TV movie was “overdramatized, and somewhat novelized.” Other errors and inaccuracies are often repeated by authors in preceding years.
A key point here and now for this book, as Lanning points out, is the 1944 court-martial of Robinson happened nearly 80 years ago. At that time, nearly 80 years had passed since the end of slavery in the U.S.
“This is the midpoint between emancipation and today,” he said in a recent interview. “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 U.S. Army but also break the color barrier in major league baseball.”
The pivotal importance of this incident, Lanning insists, is that “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.”
Further, in the book, Lanning writes: Had he not been charged, he wouldn’t have this incident documented to prove how he could handle a Jim Crow-law interrogation. He also likely would have gone to war, deployed to the European Theater, where “there was a 70 percent chance he would have been killed or wounded.” Had he survived the war, and made it back with his battalion in June, 1946, time would have been lost to play through the Kansas City Monarch, and the Dodgers’ Montreal assignment.
Had he been found guilty, his future would have been derailed. He would have served stockade time, or been dismissed from the service — a dishonorable discharge.
The book unfolds in distinct sections. The first 30 chapters/142 pages lay out Robinson’s biographical life, from birth to death, selecting from many previous published material to shape his legacy. In a “conclusion” Lanning adds: “His conduct in standing up for what was right and then successfully — and peacefully — navigating his way through a flawed but basically fair military system likely played an important role in Branch Rickey’s selecting him for his noble experiment.”
There are then 11 “historical perspective” chapters that give more context to events in his life and how the country was at those moments, such as Robinson’s birth in 1919 when the Spanish Influenza was still leading to hundreds of thousands of deaths, what was lure of coming to Pasadena, the state of Texas race relations, and similar incidents in the Army with such athletic luminaries as Max Schmeling and Joe Louis that are important to the handling of Robinson’s case as someone with fame.
Appendix A through Y (pages 174 to 264) are a book unto itself — sworn statements, official charge sheets, letters submitted, Robinson’s request for retirement from active duty and the final court-martial transcript.
“The entire transcript of the trial (is to) enable readers to make their own decisions,” Lanning writes in the author’s note.
If you’ve seen “A Few Good Men,” with Tom Cruise interrogating Jack Nicholson … We don’t have any thing but this to read and make conclusions.
The most profound words jump off Robinson’s statement (pages 174-175):
The bus driver asked me for my identification card. I refused to give it to him. … He then comes back and tells people that this nigger is making trouble. I told the bus driver stop fucking with me, so he gets the rest of the men around there and starts blowing his top and someone calls the MP’s. … The only time I made my statement was when this fellow called me a nigger. I didn’t have a loud or boisterous conversation. That’s the only profane language I used if you call it profane … That private over there in that room, I told him that if he, a private, ever called me that name again I would break him in two.
On July 17, Robinson originally faced three charges that involved disrespecting a captain, disobeying an order (later, in a receiving room), and wrongful use of “abusive and vulgar language” toward a civilian.
The sworn statements by the bus driver is a piece of work. The language used by others shows how most were protecting themselves and their actions. The final charge sheet eliminated the third “language” element. So now the charge had everything to do with what happened after the bus ride, nothing related to the actual event, but as a result of it.
The findings (page 262) on August 2 show that by “secret ballot, two-thirds of the members present” found Robinson not guilty, “and therefore acquits the accused.”
An author Q&A
A Q&A last March with Kristine Morris at Foreward Reviews touches on several pertinent questions we had, and we feel comfortable republishing her highlights:
What led you to your interest in exploring the court-martial of Jackie Robinson?
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.
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?
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. … He got a fair trial. He was acquitted. Justice prevailed. … 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.
When we reached out to Mr. Lanning, we had this additional Q&A exchange via email that we found extremely telling about his approach this subject:
What was your context to Robinson growing up, reading about him in the news, seeing him involved in civil rights activity in the 1960s? Did you have any strong opinions about him?
I was born in 1946 in West Texas. As a boy was a Dodger fan — especially when they faced the Yankees, or anyone else against the Yankees, when it came World Series time. For most of the year, I, like nearly everyone else in Texas and the south (before the expanisons), was a Cardinal fan.
I knew about Robinson as a ball player but was not aware of his civil rights efforts until I began work on this book. As a side note, I grew up in a segregated community and went to all white schools. No blacks at my college (Texas A&M) until junior year. Never had a one-on-one conversation with an African American until that time. I grew up surrounded by the prejudices and injustices of the times. It was not until I entered the military in 1968 when I found many of the men training me to be black, and then in combat have my life literally in their hands. I was dumbfounded and even angry to find that nearly everything I had been taught, and surrounded, all my youth about blacks was wrong. I don’t like being wrong.
The point you make about how the court-martial was a pivotal moment in his life is profound in many ways and deserves this sort of attention about how it could have went in several different directions – the case, as well as whether it happened or not and he went to fight in Europe. Were there things that happened in your military career that were pivotal in how your life turned various ways?
Vietnam is the pivotal event of my generation. For those of use who went to the war it remains the dominant influence in our lives. I have over the past 35 years and two dozen books attempted to make sense of it all. I have found that there is only one story to come out of the war, we just all tell it differently.
Do you have much thought about this year’s Jackie Robinson Day – was it anything you paid attention to in the past, or will this year with no MLB games being played and this perhaps not being recognized in the same ways it has been? Are you still much of a baseball fan?
My publisher and I pushed to have the book out by opening day. We made it. MLB, of course, did not. Hopefully, when everything does settle out, JR will continue to receive the recognition he deserves. I am surprised at the numbers that are not aware of JR’s court martial or even of his military service. I will admit I’m not a sincere baseball fan any more but do follow the standings. The Astros are my favorite — despite the beating on garbage cans!
Many thanks to Wendy Parker of Sports Biblio Digest for the heads up on this book and this Q&A from her April 5 post.
How it goes in the scorebook
To read an account of this from someone with an extensive military background, one who has done a prolific amount of writing and research, and a publisher supporting his work, and you get the most important recount and assessment of a point in Robinson’s life too often glossed over for reasons that we can only guess is due to a lack of its uncomfortable nature and ill-equipped ability to decipher it.
It will be one to keep among the many we have already on our shelves as Jackie Robinson Day continues into the next decades.
We salute all those involved in this process and thank you for your service.
It’s one thing for Lanning to reproduce documents onto print for the book, which is by far the most any has done on this subject that we can find. It’s another as well to see the documents as they are kept in files.
We also came across this piece, “Jim Crow, Meet Lieutenant Robinson,” by John Vernon for the National Archives publication, where many of the original documents are accessible. Such as (and including information before Post-it notes):
== The Baseball Hall of Fame’s “Memories and Dreams” magazine, sent out to those who support the organization with annual donations, posted a story in its Fall 2010 issue (Vol. 32, No. 5) called “Character and Courage: Path To Equality: Robinson Fought for Civil Rights Long Before He Became a Dodger” by Gabriel Schechter. The story goes back to when Robinson was drafted by the Army in 1942 and went first to Fort Riley in Kansas and was barred from the Officers Candidate School. Former boxing champion Joe Louis, also at the camp, interviened. Robinson also had an incident with a major over seating for black officers that led him to the colonel, and a reprimand for the major.
The Camp Hood incident, the story also notes, happened at a base that was named after a Confederate general).
More on Jackie Robinson Day
== MLB.com will live stream 12 hours of Jackie Robinson-related programming including:
= The 1955 World Series film (featuring Robinson’s famous steal of home): 8 a.m.
= “Letters to Jackie” special: 9 a.m.
= 1997 ceremony and game at Shea Stadium (Dodgers-Mets) that started official JRDay celebration: 10 a.m.
== MLB Network will air:
= Dodgers-Padres game from 2012 (noon): Includes a home run by Matt Kemp, a triple play by the Dodgers, and a walk-off home run by Dee Gordon.
= Ken Burns’ two-part documentary starting at 4 p.m.
(They can’t get the airing rights to the 2013 movie “42”?)
Another special story for this day
== The L.A. Times’ Bill Plaschke has a column:
Our favorite Robinson books over the years
== From our 2019 review list: “Reclaiming 42: Public Memory and the Reframing of Jackie Robinson’s Radical Legacy” by David Naze does an excellent job of challenging the true meaning behind the MLB Jackie Robinson Day movement.
== We also endorse: “The Black Bruins: The Remarkable Lives of UCLA’s Jackie Robinson, Woody Strode, Tom Bradley, Kenny Washington, and Ray Bartlett,” by James W. Johnson, released Feb. 2018.
= Jules Tygiel’s classic “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and his Legacy” from 1983; a 25th anniversary edition landed in 2008. In between, Tygiel edited “The Jackie Robinson Reader” in 1997
= Rachel Robinson’s 2014 “Jackie Robinson: An Intimate Portrait” with Lee Daniels
= Roger Kahn’s “Rickey & Robinson” The True, Untold Story of the Integration of Baseball” in 2014, which actually came out a year after the Harrison Ford/Chadwick Boseman movie “42”
= Arnold Ramersad’s 1997 biography “Jackie Robinson: A Biography”
= Jonathan Eig’s 2007 “Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson’s First Season”
= “Jackie Robinson: An Integrated Life” by J. Christopher Schultz/Library of African-American Biography, in 2016
= “Jackie and Campy” in 2014 by William C. Kashatus
= Two edited by Michael G. Long: “First Class Citizenship: The Civil Rights Letters of Jackie Robinson” in 207, and “Beyond Home Plate: Jackie Robinson On Life After Baseball” in 2012.
= How rich are your tastes? This rare book stores has a signed copy of a Robinson 1950 book inscribed to the then-mayor of New York. It’s only $4,200.