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Thursday, January 23, 2014

Port Chicago Mutiny and the Port Chicago 50

"Hi, Papa Clifford!" It was my best friend, checking in on my dad because she heard he was in the hospital. He was now at home, and she was concerned. "I'm sorry, who is this?" my dad asked in his formal tone, the one he uses when he is "handling business."
"It's me, Pebbles!" Dad then laughed, happy to hear from my best friend. They chatted for a while. Dad immediately felt better. Pebbles is a lawyer and sometimes edits my posts when she is not in court. She is very excited that I will be writing about the Port Chicago Mutiny because civil rights icon Thurgood Marshall was involved with it. She received a "Thurgood Marshall Scholarship" while an undergrad at Howard University.

Thurgood Marshall spent the better part of his life in the twentieth century fighting civil rights. As a matter of fact, if you look up "Civil Rights", you are bound to see a picture of the stalwart Thurgood Marshall pictured in front of a courthouse, or in a distinguished robe as a US Supreme Court Justice Judge, the highest court of the land. If I were one of the African American soldiers being tried for mutiny, I would want Thurgood Marshall defending me. Winthrop's Military Law and Precedents defined mutiny as "to usurp, subvert or override superior military authority."

I described the harrowing tragedy of the Port Chicago Naval Magazine Explosion, the worst homeland disaster of World War II earlier this week. The explosion happened on July 17, 1944. Tons of ammunition being loaded onto Liberty ships exploded, instantly killing over three hundred people, the majority African American sailors. The Black enlistees were forced to quickly load the materials onto Liberty ships at Port Chicago, CA by their officers.  2014 marks the 70 year anniversary of the event, and commemorative memorials will take place across the United States.

I am quite sure that if you were a survivor of such a horrific event, you would not be fond of returning to work in an an unsafe environment. You probably experienced trauma as a first responder after viewing the mangled remains of bodies that were incinerated. Imagine being told to go back to the pier to do the same back breaking and dangerous assignment. Without given any protocols.

The 328 surviving Black enlistees refused. Fifty men were singled out and charged and convicted of mutiny. The men cited the Navy's lack of care for their safety. They wanted Navy officials to change procedures but the Navy refused to comply with their wishes. So the men were rounded up and arrested.
 Two hundred eight of these men were court-martialed, sentenced to bad conduct discharges, and the forfeit of three month's pay for disobeying orders. Fifty of them men, however, were charged with outright mutiny, a crime punishable by death. They would be known as the Port Chicago 50.  No Port Chicago sailor convicted of mutiny was sentenced to death; however, most were sentenced to eight to fifteen years of hard labor. In January of 1946, however, all of the accused were given clemency and were released from prison.
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Scene from Paul Leaf's 2009 play,  Mutiny at Port Chicago.

It was reported that the trial was for thirty days and deliberations were for 80 minutes, including lunch-time.
According to, the prosecutor was naval officer James Frank Coakley, who claimed that the the sailors were "depraved" men who didn't want to work. In reading the research, I was utterly amazed at how the Black enlistees were subject to exaggerated claims and trickery. Their officers were viewed in a positive light and considered heroes; some even received Navy and Marine medals for bravery.

 Thurgood Marshal, the attorney on the appeal, put up a "valiant defense." Marshall was Chief Counsel for the NAACP and would argue 32 cases before the Supreme Court, and the famous Brown v. Board of Education that led to desegregation of public schools. (

Thurgood Marshall

Furthermore, in addition to the discriminatory practices of placing Black men as the only ones handling the materials and hiring them in menial positions such as stevedores, Thurgood Marshall found that the 12th Naval District:

Ignored official cautions by the San Francisco waterfront union before the Port Chicago catastrophe and that an explosion was inescapable if they continued in the use of untrained seamen in the loading of ammunition.
The Navy dismissed an offer by this same union to dispatch skilled men to instruct Navy personnel in the proper handling of explosives. In addition, it came out that division officers of Port Chicago actually placed bets from $5 and up as to whose crew could load more ammunition. (

Thanks to the persistent efforts of Thurgood Marshall, the NAACP, and letters written to the government, the Port Chicago 50 received clemency. The Pittsburgh Courier, the African American newspaper with the largest circulation in the 1940s, provided continuous coverage of the events. Petitions and protests were critical components on the outcome of the Black sailors.

 Many years later, according to, a 1994 review concluded that the trial had strong racial overtones. On December 23, 1999, President William Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, one of the few still living members of the original 50. Meeks wanted everyone to know about his plight and the story behind the Port Chicago Mutiny. Some individuals believed that asking for a pardon was essentially admitting to guilt, but Meeks remained steadfast in his desire to get the story of the Port Chicago Mutiny/Port Chicago 50, back out into the nation's consciousness.

The Port Chicago Mutiny caused the Navy to change their procedures for loading munitions. After the trial, men had to become certified in order to load these special materials. Port Chicago, therefore, proved to not only be a civil rights case, but also a human rights issue. Moreover, Port Chicago Mutiny struck a chord with journalists who discovered the case decades years later and decided to investigate it. Professors and people in the performing arts were inspired to research and create works of art, bringing the Port Chicago 50 into the media and dialogue.

Historians point out that the Port Chicago Disaster also was a factor in desegregating the military. Blacks needed to have an opportunity for advancement in the armed forces and not be confined to segregated, menial positions. Prevailing attitudes of the day that fostered discrimination had to be eliminated. In essence, Port Chicago Magazine Naval, the worst homeland disaster in WWII, and the Port Chicago Mutiny/Port Chicago 50, the largest naval mutiny in at the time, became a catalyst for change in the military. It enabled the military to take an introspective look on how it treated its personnel, and the need to be proactive in protecting all of its members in perilous situations.

So what do you think? Would you have been brave enough to stand up to a commanding officer and inform him that you weren't going to load those explosives?  If you were a wronged survivor, would you be willing to ask for a pardon after all those years?

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Please share this post in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Port Chicago.

70 year anniversary of Port Chicago is this year."Freddie Meeks Pardon"

See also:  Pittsburgh Courier"A Non-Welcoming Homecoming For the 51st Defense Battalion"

Notes: Port Chicago Mutiny has been the subject and title of a NBC movie in 1999. It starred Michael Jai White and Duane Martin and was directed by Kevin Hooks. Morgan Freeman is listed as one of the executive directors. There has been plays, documentaries, a symphony, artwork and books on the subject. An episode of the CBS TV drama JAG devoted a story line on a  survivor in 2002. The Port Chicago Mutiny, written by Richard Allen in 1989, is the foremost reference on Port Chicago.

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