Congressman Mark DeSaulnier joined with Congresswoman Barbara Lee to host a “Special Order” during which he and others Members of Congress recognized the Port Chicago 50 as we approach the 71st anniversary of the tragedy.
Congressman DeSaulnier also penned the op-ed below for the Bay Area News Group, which includes the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times.
Guest commentary: Seeking Justice for the Port Chicago 50
By Rep. Mark DeSaulnier
Published on MercuryNews.com
July 17, 2015
This week we honor the 71st anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster, the deadliest home front disaster of World War II.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord was and continues to be a major munitions facility, responsible for sending bombs, shells, torpedoes and small-arms munitions to the Pacific Theater.
On July 17, 1944, a ship loaded with weapons exploded, killing or wounding 710 people, 435 of whom were African-American.
This incident represented more than 15 percent of all African-American naval casualties during the war. At the time, the armed forces were still segregated. Indicative of the discriminatory practices, all of the enlisted men loading munitions at the site were African-American, while all of the officers overseeing operations were white.
Many officers and enlisted sailors at Port Chicago had no training or experience in ship loading or safe handling of munitions. Both the longshoremen’s union and the Coast Guard repeatedly warned about the lack of training, culture, and adherence to basic safety rules.
The Navy failed to adequately provide these sailors with the necessary tools to operate under safe working conditions, even after the tragedy struck, because of the color of their skin. These sailors knew their lives, skills and abilities were valued less to those in charge.
A mere three weeks after the tragedy, the surviving sailors were ordered to continue loading ships under the same unsafe, segregated conditions.
When the surviving 258 African-Americans understandably refused to return to work, 50 were charged with mutiny. If convicted of this charge, the men faced prison terms of up to 15 years or death.
Among them was Joseph Randolph Small from New Jersey, who was the first sailor to refuse to return to work after the explosion. Small, seen as a leader among the men, was asked by an officer why he refused to go back to work. He responded by saying he was afraid.
In an unfair and biased trial, the men were indeed found guilty of mutiny despite appeals that their civil disobedience did not amount to an attempt to overthrow their command.
Their plea was simply to be treated as equals, with the same respect for their lives as those of white officers. Their sentences were eventually commuted, although their mutiny convictions have remained.
The actions of the Port Chicago 50, like the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the ongoing conversation on violence against people of color today, is part of a continued struggle for justice.
We must remember and publicly acknowledge the systematic racial discrimination these sailors suffered while serving our nation. This week I was proud to organize a series of floor statements by members of Congress to honor the lives of the Port Chicago sailors.
Calling for their exoneration is another step toward healing the racial divide that continues to exist in our country.
America would do well to remember Port Chicago. Indeed, America must remember Port Chicago.
Thurgood Marshall, then a chief counsel for the NAACP, became a crucial figure during the trial of the 50 sailors. His words are more poignant today than ever before: “What’s at stake here is more than the rights of my clients; it’s the moral commitment stated in our nation’s creed.”
Mark DeSaulnier is a member of Congress whose district covers the majority of Contra Costa County.