A standing-room only crowd filled the Regency Center in San Francisco on December 8 for the Equal Justice Society’s first annual benefit, featuring the Port Chicago Suite for Jazz Orchestra played by the Marcus Shelby Orchestra.
The event also honored the original funders of EJS, Elizabeth J. Cabraser, Quinn Delaney and Wayne Jordan, and Jack W. Londen. “Each of you provided the resources for EJS to continue at crucial junctions in our first two years, allowing EJS to survive and play a key role in defeating the right wing assault on social and racial justice,” said EJS President Eva Paterson.
EJS Chair Charles J. Ogletree welcomed the audience to “this unique confluence of art and civil rights,” an EJS production in collaboration with composer Marcus Shelby and author/historian Dr. Robert Allen.
Dr. Allen, author of The Port Chicago Mutiny, on which the jazz suite is based, explained the historical Port Chicago mutiny trial.
“The site,” he said, “is nowhere near Chicago, it is just north of San Francisco, where African American sailors – in segregated units – loaded munitions for the Pacific thereafter. It is remembered as the single worst disaster on U.S. soil during World War II.”
In July 1944 an explosion killed more than 320 men, predominantly African American sailors, and injured 400 others. The sailors objected to the racial discrimination and manifestly unsafe working conditions at the base where only blacks were assigned to load ammunitions. When 258 of the sailors protested in a work stoppage the Navy called it mutiny, setting in motion the largest mutiny trial in U.S. Navy history. In a sensational court martial 50 young black sailors were unjustly convicted.
Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund came to their defense – and the movement continues to honor these heroic black servicemen whose courageous actions ultimately led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy.
“Although the imprisoned sailors were later released under a general amnesty after the war, their mutiny convictions have never been overturned. The injustice of their convictions cries out for redress, and reminds us of the price paid by many unsung heroes in the struggle for civil rights and justice,” said Allen.
“Today’s headlines about 18 men and women in the U.S. Army in Iraq who refused to deliver supplies with sub-standard, dangerous equipment along a perilous route remind us how relevant the Port Chicago mutiny is in our own times,” Paterson added.
Paterson’s theme was picked up in a San Francisco Chronicle editorial “In the key of war,” which opened: The injustice and horror of the Port Chicago explosion reverberated through the hall in the debut of a jazz composition at San Francisco’s Regency Center on Wednesday night.”
Describing the failure of the Bush Administration to protect the soldiers in Iraq, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s callous remarks in response to the soldiers pleas, the editorial concluded: “The voices from that hangar in Kuwait must be heard and heeded, before they become haunting notes for a requiem to this war, many years from now.”
The fourteen movements of Shelby’s composition transported the audience from a pre-war 1930s swing club where whites and blacks danced together, to the regimentation of the segregated military units to the life in the barracks where blacks from the Chicago, New York and other large urban centers lived with African Americans from the rural Mississippi and Alabama.
Powerful percussion and horn blasts mark the devastating explosion, followed by the mournful tones of a bass clarinet as the survivors were left to pick up the remains of their comrades and clean the debris.
The crowd, visibly moved by the music, responded with a standing ovation. As EJS Board member Margaret Russell said, “I have never attended an event quite like this, and last night I heard many others saying the same thing. I was so inspired by the synergy of communities, generations, and talents! The joy and energy of last night will keep me going for a long time.”
The event was organized by Ron Wong and Associates, with members of the EJS staff. The Host Committee included Julian Bond, Karen Brown, Belva Davis, Kamala Harris, Aileen Hernandez, James Hormel and Timothy Wu, Norman Lear, the Reverend Diana McDaniel, Dale Minami and other arts and civil rights leaders.
Port Chicago Sailors Featured in National Magazine
Parade Magazine, which boasts 38 million readers in Sunday newspapers across the country, featured a three-page story “Isn’t It Time to Right the Wrong?” about the African American sailors of Port Chicago.
Drawing on the Dr. Allen’s definitive history and interviews with several survivors, the author, Tom Seligson, called the court martial “one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in our history.”
An action box at the end of the article listed the Equal Justice Society and our website as an important source of materials and advocacy about Port Chicago. EJS web-editor Keith Kamisugi, who created an informative and lively section on the website about Port Chicago, the jazz concert, and EJS’s involvement, reported more than 1,000 hits on the first weekend alone.
This article originally appeared in the EJS Spring 2005 E-Newsletter.