Bloomington’s very own far flung correspondent and English teacher deluxe, Elizabeth Sweeney, reminded our small part of the world yesterday that December 1st is the anniversary of Rosa Parks sitting in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus and refusing to give up her seat for a white person.
Parks Being Booked
Imagine that! It was a revolutionary act. People could have been killed for doing such things back in 1955.
We all know the story of Parks, the ensuing bus boycott, and the emergence of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy as civil rights leaders. But did you know that another great trailblazer did pretty much the same thing more than a decade before Parks’ seminal stand?
Jackie Robinson — yep, the baseball player who integrated the Major Leagues in 1947 — was arrested and charged in 1944 while he was a lieutenant in the US Army with the 761st “Black Panthers” Tank Battalion at Camp Hood, Texas. He got on a bus on a July day that year and took a seat near the front. The driver told him he was to go to the back of the bus. Robinson — a hardhead if there ever was one — told the driver to mind his own business. The two argued until the bus came to Robinson’s stop, at which point a bus company official had arrived, just in time to call Robinson a “nigger.”
Jack Roosevelt Robinson
The argument continued at full blast, drawing a crowd of onlookers. MPs arrived and asked Robinson to come in for questioning. Before they were able to leave, another MP dashed up and asked, loudly, if the first MPs had collared “the nigger lieutenant.”
At this point, Robinson, just as loudly, announced the he’d “break in two” the next guy who called him a nigger.
When the MPs and Robinson finally did arrive at headquarters to sort out the affair, investigators dropped more racial pejoratives. Their overall tone indicated to Robinson that he wasn’t about to get a fair shake so he simply walked out.
Well, the investigators found that kind of uppity-ness unbearable so they recommended Robinson be brought before a court martial. Robinson’s battalion commander refused to press charges so the Army immediately transferred him to another unit. His new commander happily wrote up the court martial, charging Robinson with, among other things, insubordination and being drunk. Funny thing was Robinson did not drink, but silly things like the truth have rarely concerned racists.
Robinson was confined to quarters until his trial which took place the next month before an all-white panel of judges. In the meantime, Robinson wrote a letter complaining of his treatment to the War Department and notified the NAACP and black newspapers about his predicament.
Fortunately for him, the Army at the time was slowly but surely becoming more cognizant of civil rights for its black members. In fact, the Army had outlawed segregation on its buses long before the original incident, making the driver’s accusation against Robinson a red herring. Still, there was enough vestigial racism in the military that the trumped up charges could be prosecuted. In any case, the judges acquitted him.
All’s well that ends well, sure, but being subjected to the court martial certainly was the very definition of harassment and persecution. The Army would be desegregated fully by presidential order in 1948. But, to be sure, the state of race relations around the nation would be a source of legal upheaval, murder, and rioting for decades to come.
Yes, things are better now. But a pessimist might point out that although the public usage of terms like nigger is frowned upon now, racists have devised clever codes to say, essentially, the same thing. Otherwise, why would anyone call the first dark-skinned President of the United States, as proud a practicing capitalist as can be found in 50 states, a socialist? And why would some wags to this day doubt that he is a “real American”?
We’ve come a long way. Yet we have a long way to go.