Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Cline's Narrative on Jackie Robinson's Court-Martial Trial

101 yr-old Capt. William A. Cline was the Army’s defense attorney for Jackie Robinson in his court-martial trial. Hamp & I visited with him at his home in Wharton, Texas on January 14, 2012. The trial was in 1944 and according to Mr. Cline “there was nothing said about it until the Turner Broadcasting people made the movie, and that broke it loose. I was interviewed by newspapers all over the country”. He proudly told me his narrative was also taken by a fellow named Anders who called him from the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

I asked Mr. Cline if he’d ever thought about how Major League Baseball would have progressed as far as black players being part of the league if JR had been found guilty and had not broken the color barrier when he did. He said yes, he sure had. When I asked what kind of punishment JR could have received if Cline hadn’t gotten the acquittal, he said with a high, emotionally charged voice, “Behavior unbecoming to an officer and a gentleman could be punishable by death”. 

And then he just started to tell his stories. The following is a transcript of Mr. Cline telling us about how he came to represent Jackie Robinson, followed by his opinion on what the outcome of the trial was attributed to.   

“Strangest thing how that came about... I wasn’t trained as a staff judge advocate lawyer. I was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the field of artillery. I was assigned as the platoon commander for a sight destroyer battalion stationed up in Brownwood, Tx. I served up there - we were scheduled to go to North Africa. While we were there preparing to go over seas the fighting had ended in North Africa so we were slated to go to Sicily in Italy. They converted my battalion to an amphibious tracker battalion which required the best officer personnel.

They were graduating those lawyers from Ann Arbor, Michigan, law school. They were sending them down there, but they weren’t there very long – they were sending them all over the world.  And they just weren’t there long enough to tend to business.

They put me, and another fellow from the sight destroyers, - assigned us to the 4th Army Headquarters there at Camp Hood. I was a fervent defense lawyer for the courts there.

Well, when the Jackie Robinson incident occurred, and he was put under arrest, they created a court - they didn’t put the officers in the stockade. They confined them to quarters. Well, they cut orders directing me to be the defense attorney for Jackie Robinson. Well I did a little investigation and at that time he was well known as an All-American football player. I went over to his quarters to visit with him about it – we had a lengthy visit. And he thanked me, told me that he felt that the NAACP was going to furnish him with a lawyer. And I told him that, well, (Cline smiles while remembering the exchange) I thought that was a pretty good idea because, you know, I came from just about as far South as you could get!

Anyway, he talked about his life. He frequently made reference to his mother, but never to his father. He told me how his mother had moved them from Hillsboro, Alabama – I thought he meant Texas at first when he said it [this humored Cline to tell] – to Riverside, California. She took the family out there and educated them in southern California.

It just so happened that one of my friends had quarters up there on post and he’d gone on leave. And I’d had my son, my oldest boy, up there visitin’ with me, and his mother. I took him over there – he was a big football fan – and introduced him to Jackie. They had a nice visit. And I went on back to my office thinking well, maybe it was all over. 2 or 3 days later he called me, said he wanted me to represent him. Well time was runnin’ out. I had to get pretty busy – they didn’t wait on you then.  They set the court and you got to go.

It all came about when Jackie got on a bus at Camp Hood and sat down in the middle of the bus. The bus driver stopped the bus and went back there and said “so & so, you need to move to the back of the bus”. Jackie said “you go drive the bus, I’ll sit where I want to sit”. The bus driver did drive it. He drove it over to the MP station. The MP sargeant there put Jackie under arrest for conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. Well, while they were there the MP sergeant had made reference several times to “nigger lieutenant”. Finally  Jackie told him “if you call me a nigger lieutenant one more time or make reference to me as nigger lieutenant I’m gonna break your back”.

With that the MP took him over to the Provost Marshal – I don’t think the Provost Marshal really knew what to do. But anyway, he aggravated Jackie a little while and told him “you sit on that bench over there”. And the provost marshal went over to the mess hall which was next door and sat there about 25-30 minutes. Well after that length of time Jackie got kind of irritated and he went outside where there was a walkway with pebble stones. He picked up a handful of that stuff and started throwing it up on the roof of the mess hall, which was tin. That brought the provost marshal out in a rage. He filed every kind of complaint you can imagine.”

Well the battalion commander who was a bird colonel felt like there wasn’t any basis to the charge. On the trial of the case he testified in behalf of Jackie. It had a big effect on the court’s acquittal of Jackie.

But it was real funny, that all during the trial, every time we’d get a break  or something, Jackie’d run back to the telephone and I guess he’d call Rachel, or  his mother, I don’t know who he was calling,  but he’d go call em on the telephone. and when it was over he was very appreciative and thanked me. But I never had any contact with him after that.

You know, there was one factor I felt that was in my favor considerably. That is that the provost marshal was in the housekeeping department. He obviously was what we called a reclassified officer. The court was made of combat officers. And I just felt like the court didn’t have any good connection with the housekeeping people. And the bird colonel’s testimony was extremely strong in favor of Jackie. He was a fine man. His battalion had already gone to the European theatre but they held him over for that trial. He didn’t go til after the trial was over.”

That’s it for now. Check in for more…lots of good stuff left that Mr. Cline talked about. Still planning on getting video converted to post.




  1. Hi Carla

    My name is Bill Burke and I am interested in speaking with you concerning your interview with Capt. Cline. How can I get in touch with you.


    1. Hi Bill -

      It's interesting that I read your comment just moments after committing myself to finishing documenting my visit with Captain Cline. He talked to me for about an hour & a half and I could tell he was tiring. The time flew by - he had so much to say. There's a lot more transcribing to do.

      It would be a pleasure to hear from you. My email is momofbird@yahoo.com.


    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.