In honor of Black History Month I decided to read a book that just recently arrived in the library, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
by Steve Sheinkin.
Not being a history major it never surprises me when I read about events from world history about which I haven't heard. But as the facts in this book started to be revealed I was shocked that the events in Port Chicago weren't more well known.
The year was 1944. World War II was in full swing. Black men were finally allowed to do something in the Navy other than KP, but not much as the men highlighted in this book soon found out. These black sailors were assigned to load munitions onto ships as a vital part of the war effort. They, however, were not given any specific safety training and their officers (all white) pressured them to load the ammunition as fast as they possibly could.
It was a huge accident waiting to happen. On July 14, 1944 there was a massive blast that "was felt all over the Bay Area. In Berkeley, thirty miles away, seismographs recorded a jolt with the force of a small earthquake." Every single person on the pier or one the nearby ships were killed by the blast. A total of 320 died, 202 of them were black sailors who'd been loading ammunitions.
When the Navy investigated the blast not one single black sailor was called to give testimony about the lack of training and the efforts of their commanding officers to make them work faster by betting on which division would load more weight of ammunitions per day.
The black sailors were then reassigned to another port and expected to continue loading ammunitions without any additional training or safety measures. When the sailors refused they were arrested and tried for mutiny. Admiral Carleton Wright even told the sailors that they would have to face the firing squad if they didn't go back to loading munitions. Most did but 50 men still refused and they were court martialed.
During their trial it was apparent to everyone that the 50 men were not getting a fair deal. Thurgood Marshall, lawyer for the NAACP, sat in the trial. When all 50 men were found guilt of mutiny, he took up their cases and attempted to get an appeal based on how the trial was so biased and the court discriminated against the men.
The appeal wasn't successful but news about Port Chicago wouldn't go away. The Navy had to finally concede that their policies toward black soldiers were actually making things worse.
Back when the war began, navel leaders had argued that racism was not their problem. The Navy had a war to win, and couldn't be expected to solve America's race problems at the same time. But things looked different after Port Chicago and [other] newer incidents. Segregation was actually hampering the war effort. It was time for a new plan---whether the country was ready for it or not.
Thurgood Marshall and many others still had a lot of work to do to bring civil rights to everyone but the 50 black sailors from Port Chicago were willing to stand up for their rights. All 50 of these men are now dead. They should be remembered for their courageous stand against discrimination.
Steve Sheinkin, the award-winning author of BOMB
, has consolidated a lot of information into a nice thin book crammed with important and largely forgotten facts. It is just right for middle grade or high school researchers. I recommend it highly.
Quotes from: Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50
. New York: Roaring Brook Press, 2014. Print.