African American sailors loading ammunition at Port Chicago Naval Magazine Courtesy of the National Park Service, Official US Navy Photo
U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein recently called on President Barack Obama to right a 70-year-old wrong perpetrated against 50 African-American sailors.
The men were wrongly convicted of mutiny, the California Democrats said, following the worst domestic disasters of World War II at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord, Calif., in 1944.
“Port Chicago serves as a stark reminder of both the sacrifice of the brave service members who served there and of the painful legacy of a segregated military,” Boxer and Feinstein wrote in the letter. “We urge you to take executive action to restore justice to these 50 sailors who signed up to serve our country in World War II but were instead victims of racism and unjust convictions.”
On July 17, 1944, a group of young African American sailors was assigned to load bombs and ammunition onto naval ships at Port Chicago, a segregated munitions base on Suisun Bay. At around 10:18 p.m., nearly 5,000 tons of ammunition exploded, instantly obliterating 320 service members, including 202 African American sailors who were loading the munitions onto the ships.
While the official investigation found no one at fault, according to the Contra Costa Times, the Black sailors—who were the only ones saddled with the dangerous job of loading munitions onto ships headed for the Pacific theater—had not been properly trained in the safe handling of the combustible material.
Following the accident, White officers ordered the remaining Black soldiers to resume loading munitions, but they refused, citing the unsafe conditions.
The Navy arrested hundreds of sailors on various charges, and 50 of them, known as the “Port Chicago 50” were charged with mutiny—all were African American.
During their trial many witnesses attested that, contrary to the charges, the men were not unpatriotic nor did they conspire to mutiny, but simply wanted reassurances that another explosion would not occur, the AFRO reported at the time. Still, all were convicted.
Even back then, many acknowledged the harsh sentence was unwarranted and discriminatory and reflective of the segregated nature of the U.S. Armed Services.
“It must be frankly admitted that every one of the defendants is colored and this fact, far from adding to the weight of evidence against them, by its very promulgation shifts the burden of proof onto the navy itself, because it is the navy that is on trial,” The People’s World, a labor daily said in an editorial at the time, as quoted by the AFRO. “Are the fifty enlisted men considered in the same category, enjoying the same privileges and responsibilities as all other naval enlisted men? The answer is ‘No.’ They are segregated in a jim-crow unit, denied chance of promotion, confined to manual labor in a home port.
“The…court-martial must be turned into a trial of the United States Navy if victory over fascism is to be won.”
Legendary civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall, then of the NAACP, took up the cause of the Port Chicago 50, saying, “These men are being tried for mutiny solely because of their race or color,” according to the AFRO.
While Marshall was not able to get the convictions overturned, President Truman gave them clemency after the war ended. A 1994 review by the Navy confirmed Marshall’s indictment of the discriminatory case, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the surviving members of the Port Chicago 50. But the records for the 49 other sailors have not been expunged.
“There is more to be done to correct this grave injustice,” Boxer and Feinstein urged the president in their letter. “We urge you to take executive action to restore honor to these 50 sailors who signed up to serve our country in World War II but were instead victims of racism and unjust convictions. Their exoneration would demonstrate our continued commitment to a just and equal society for all Americans.”