Most people know of Jackie Robinson as the Hall of Fame player who finally broke baseball's color barrier when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s. Little known and long forgotten, however, is the blow against racial inequality that Robinson struck while serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. Eleven years before Rosa Parks refused to yield her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to move to the back of a bus in Fort Hood, Texas.
The incident and the trial were made the subjects of a little-remembered movie called The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson. The arrest of Rosa Parks in December of 1955 sparked the Montgomery bus boycott that not only brought an end to segregation on the city buses but also became a cause celebre for a civil rights movement that became the dominant domestic political issue in America in the 1950s and '60s. Robinson's act of rebellion in 1944 set in motion a different kind of revolution that led to his entrance on the national stage as the man who would
change America by changing America's game, its "national pastime." Breaking the barrier of racism while enduring racial taunts, beanballs, and death threats would have been a daunting challenge for any man. It is all the more remarkable that Robinson achieved that goal in a game so steeped in tradition and resistant to change that Bill Veeck, a team owner who brought an exploding scoreboard and a pinch-hitting midget (with a small strike zone) to the game, once complained that only the paper clip had undergone less change in a hundred years than baseball.
From Cairo to Cooperstown
It was a long, roundabout route Jackie Robinson followed, from his birth in 1919 on a plantation near Cairo, Georgia, to a hero's role with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Not long after his birth as the youngest of five children, his father, a black sharecropper, deserted the family and ran off with a neighbor's wife. His mother took the children to an uncle's home in California before they settled into a place of their own in Pasadena. His mother found a job, washing and ironing. Robinson recalled in his autobiography, I Never Had It Made. Her earnings, together with welfare assistance, helped to make ends meet, though just barely.
"Sometimes there were just two meals a day," Robinson wrote, "and some days we wouldn't have eaten at all if it hadn't been for the leftovers my mother was able to bring home from her job." His mother's dream was that her children would get an education. For Jackie and his older brother Mack, the love of athletic competition was the spur that drove them through high school and college. When Jackie set a new record for the broad jump at Pasadena Junior College, it was Mack's record that he broke. Despite a heart ailment that doctors warned could make his sports activities fatal, Mack Robinson went on to become an Olympic sprinter, finishing second to the legendary Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
While in junior college. Jackie made local history in two sports in two cities on the same day, setting a new running broad jump record of 25 feet 6 inches in Pomona in the morning and playing shortstop on the Pasadena team that won the championship in Glendale that afternoon. At UCLA, he was the school's first athlete to letter in four sports in the same year, starring in football, basketball, baseball, and track. Robinson left college before his senior year, though unlike so many of today's star athletes, it was not to sign a multi-million-dollar contract with a major sports franchise.
"It seemed very necessary for me to relieve some of my mother's financial burdens," he wrote, "even though I knew it had always been her dream to have me finish college." He found work in Hawaii, playing football for the Honolulu Bears on Sundays and working …