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A Message from EEOC Chair Janet Dhillon on Veterans Day 2020

Move to the back of the bus, the driver ordered the passenger. The bus rider was tired and nursing a sore ankle. The passenger was also a proud African American with a strong sense of justice.  For these reasons, the rider refused to move. Police were called, and the recalcitrant passenger was taken into custody, arrested, and booked.  

And then Army Second Lieutenant Jack Roosevelt Robinson was court-martialed for multiple charges, all of which really amounted to being a Black man who didn’t care to submit to ill treatment.  

Rosa Parks wasn’t the first brave Black American to refuse to be humiliated and deprived of her rights on a bus – or elsewhere. Jackie Robinson enacted his own courageous patriotism near Fort Hood, Texas, in July 1944, over 11 years before Rosa’s protest in Birmingham.  Jackie served with the 761st "Black Panthers" Tank Battalion in the still-segregated U.S. military.  

Robinson's commander in the 761st refused to authorize the groundless legal action, so Jackie was abruptly transferred to another unit whose commander did consent to charge the lieutenant with multiple offenses including, among other charges, public drunkenness, even though Robinson did not drink.

By the time of the court-martial in August 1944, the charges against Robinson had been reduced to two counts of insubordination during questioning. An all-white panel of nine officers acquitted the lieutenant.  The court-martial proceedings prohibited him from being deployed overseas, depriving America of the combat service for which Lieutenant Robinson had been trained.  

World War II was won without Lieutenant Robinson’s contribution, but Jackie wasn’t finished fighting the good fight for freedom.  He’s best known for breaking the color barrier in major league baseball when he took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.  Before signing Robinson, the Dodger’s manager, Branch Rickey, asked his new player if he could face racial harassment without taking the bait and reacting with natural and understandable anger.  Jackie, astounded, asked Rickey, "Are you looking for a Negro who is afraid to fight back?"  The manager replied that he needed a “Negro player with guts enough not to fight back."

And so, with stoic strength, the former lieutenant soldiered on, enduring racial abuse, some from teammates and local fans, and more from other teams and their fans.  Even many journalists ridiculed the idea of a Black player in the majors. Jackie poured his outrage into winning, again and again. He broke down the doors of racism and countless African American athletes followed him into all sports.

After baseball, Jackie didn’t take it easy. He told future home run king Hank Aaron that "the game of baseball is great, but the greatest thing is what you do after your career is over." True to his word, Robinson continued his lifelong crusade for justice, from activism with the NAACP and other civil rights endeavors to bipartisan political involvement – he supported both Republicans and Democrats, but held their feet to the fire on civil rights. He became a corporate businessman, advancing the cause of Black people in commerce and industry. He served as a commentator on current affairs as well as sports.  

Lieutenant Robinson was unable to fight because of the race-fueled legal proceedings against him over the bus incident. That was a classic illustration of how discrimination not only hurts the direct victim, it also harms the employer and the greater community – in this case, both of which were the United States.  

That message and lesson ring familiar to all of us at the EEOC.  We strive tirelessly and constantly to educate everyone on this salient fact: The best thing an employer can do for itself is to prevent, eliminate, and eradicate all forms of illegal employment discrimination.  When they do, everyone wins. Our goal is to help America bat a thousand when it comes to workplace fairness – which goes hand in hand with productivity and success.  

This Veterans Day, let us honor our military veterans, living and dead, especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  And let’s remember those who were also veterans of other important issues in our country – such as the fight against racism.