Jackie Robinson’s Reflections On His Time as a U.S. Army Lieutenant

Excerpt with permission taken from I Never Had It Made, An Autobiography of Jackie Robinson, 1972:
jackie robinsonAfter OCS some of us were assigned to the provisional truck battalion at another section of Fort Riley, and I was made morale office. Several of my men had come to me about the seating in the post exchange. The post exchange at Fort Riley was huge, and after the theater or other activities, many men would go to it for a snack. There were only six or seven seats assigned to blacks, and my men would be kept waiting despite the many empty seats available. I told them I would try to do something about this.

My statement was met with scorn. 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. The following day I telephone the provost marshal, a Major Hafner; I made identifying myself as the morale officer of my outfit, I told him about the lack of seats for blacks at the post exchange. I tried to appeal to the major by saying that we were all in this war together and it seemed to me that everyone should have the same basic rights. The major said that there was nothing to be done. I insisted the men’s protest ought to be given consideration. The major said it was hopeless. Finally, taking it for granted that I was white, he said, “Lieutenant, let me put it you this way. How would you like to have your wife sitting next to a nigger?”

jackie robinson on horse 428

Pure rage took over; I was so angry that I asked him if he knew how close his wife had ever been to a nigger. I was shouting at the top of my voice. Every typewriter in headquarters stopped. The clerks were frozen in disbelief at the way I ripped into the major. Colonel Longley’s office was in the same headquarters, and it was impossible for him not to hear me. The major couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and finally he hung up. I was sitting there, still fuming, when Warrant Officer Chambers advised me to go to Colonel Longley immediately and tell him what had happened.

“I know that the colonel heard every word you said,” Chambers said. “But you ought to tell him how you were provoked into blowing your top.” I agreed and reported to the colonel. The colonel listened to me sympathetically and said that he would write a letter to the commanding general asking that conditions at the post exchange be corrected. A couple of weeks went by and I began to think the colonel had done nothing, but the master sergeant advised me that Colonel Longley had indeed written a sizzling letter to the commanding general. He had put in a strong request to change the seating situation and recommended that the provost marshal be disciplined for his racist attitude. I have always been grateful to Colonel Longley.

He proved to me that when people in authority take a stand, good can come out of it.