A broad coalition of veterans, religious, civil rights and political groups is calling on President Barack Obama to use his executive powers to exonerate the 50 black sailors convicted of mutiny 71 years ago following the explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine.
The diverse coalition is seeking justice for the men whose conviction and imprisonment following the disaster – the worst lost of life on the Homefront during World War II – helped pave the way for the desegregation of the military by President Truman.
The signatories note the President’s broad powers to exonerate those accused unjustly, and pointed to his recent decisions to grant of clemency, as well as other actions to reverse past military convictions in which race played a significant role, as it did at Port Chicago. “We plead for your intervention to provide justice to the 50 black sailors, justice that was denied them in 1944 and in the 70+ years since that tragedy,” the letter reads.
One year ago, on the 70th anniversary of the tragedy, the President sent a letter to those who gather annually to commemorate the loss of 320 lives in the explosion which destroyed the naval facility and the surrounding town on July 17, 1944. “African-American service members at Port Chicago and at posts around the world defended America with valor and distinction, even when their country did not treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved,” Obama wrote. “Faced with tremendous obstacles, they fought on two fronts – for freedom abroad and equality at home.”
Port Chicago, like most military bases and units, was segregated during World War II, with black sailors alone employed in the dangerous job of loading munitions onto ships under the supervision of white officers. Following the tragedy, black sailors were ordered to resume the loading of ships despite the ongoing investigation into the cause of the explosion, and without the training they and others had warned was needed. Fifty sailors ultimately refused to resume loading and were tried and convicted. Their unsuccessful appeal was handled by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who served as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
In the early 1990s, Congress designated the site of the explosion a National Memorial, and it was added to the National Park system in 2009. An effort by former Congressman George Miller (D-CA) during the 1990’s resulted in a pardon for one of the few surviving sailors convicted of mutiny, Freddie Meeks. Miller has called the convictions “a miscarriage of justice based on the racism of the time.”
“President Obama has already recognized the significance of Port Chicago in the history of World War II and the civil rights movement,” said Rev. Diana McDaniel, president of the Friends of the Port Chicago Memorial which organized the letter. “Now he can use his powers as President to help right the legal record by counteracting an unjust prosecution and conviction which would never have occurred but for their race. We respectfully ask that he examine the merits of our request, and that he help the Port Chicago 50, and their families, find justice after all these years.”
Additional information about Port Chicago can be found at the Friends’ website, http://portchicagomemorial.org, and at the National Park Service’s site for the Memorial, http://www.nps.gov/poch/index.htm.
Below is the letter and its signatories.
Hon. Barack Obama
President of the United States of America
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500
Dear Mr. President:
As members of the Board of Directors of the Friends of the Port Chicago National Memorial, we are appealing to you to exercise your power as President of the United States to remove the unjust and racially tainted convictions of 50 members of the U.S. Navy who were found guilty of mutiny following the devastating explosion of July 17, 1944.
As President, you signed legislation incorporating the Memorial into the National Park System. A year ago, to help commemorate the 70th anniversary of the disaster – the largest Home Front loss of life during World War II – you joined Members of Congress, family members, survivors and others in recognizing the sacrifice of those who served and died at Port Chicago Naval Magazine.
As you wrote at that time –
African-American service members at Port Chicago and at Posts around the world defended America with valor and distinction, even when their country did not treat them with the dignity and respect they deserved. Faced with tremendous obstacles, they fought on two fronts – for freedom abroad and equality at home.
The men on whose behalf we write today did not perish in the explosion, as did hundreds of their friends and fellow sailors, but they endured blatant discrimination, unjust imprisonment and a loss in benefits as a result of unwarranted prosecution that was, in the words of Congressman George Miller, “a miscarriage of justice based on the racism of the time.”
Nearly a quarter century ago, an Act of Congress was required to compel the Navy Board of Review to review the convictions of the 50 sailors. Even though the Secretary of the Navy in 1994 admitted that “racial prejudice” affected the operations at Port Chicago, including the assignment of only untrained black sailors to the dangerous munitions loading operations, the Navy refused to reverse the court’s decision.
Subsequently, President Bill Clinton, responding to an application through the Pardon Attorney, granted a pardon in 1999 to Freddie Meeks of Los Angeles, one of only a few of the convicted sailors remaining alive at that time. As a practical matter, we recognize the difficulty of gathering all of the documentation on the remaining 49 men that would be necessary to meet the standards required by the regular pardon process. In any event, we note that under the 1915 Burdick v. United States decision, acceptance of a pardon “carries an imputation of guilt, acceptance, a confession” of the commission of a crime, which we believe is an unjust burden to require of the Port Chicago sailors.
The very substantial record that has been developed by scholars, lawyers and others over the past two decades provides more than adequate evidence that the unprecedented mutiny trial of the Port Chicago survivors was based upon, and characterized by pervasive racism. Even at the time, Thurgood Marshall, who was deeply involved in the case in his capacity as counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, recognized the prejudicial nature of the prosecution and convictions. In addition, in the intervening years, action has been taken to exonerate other black Americans against whom military prosecution was determined to have been racially influenced, including Henry Flipper and the “Fort Lawton 28.”
As President, you possess a wide range of options for providing the Port Chicago 50 with the justice free from racial prejudice that they never received. Indeed, we note your past use of your commutation power, which you described as “an important first step toward restoring fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.”
We respectfully request that you utilize all of the options available to you as President to set aside the unjust mutiny convictions of the Port Chicago 50. In particular, we request that you explore all appropriate Executive remedies that would remove the unfair convictions from the military records of these sailors, and give comfort to their descendants and many more who are committed to telling the story and teaching the lessons of Port Chicago. Most importantly, we plead for your intervention to provide justice to the 50 black sailors, justice that was denied them in 1944 and in the 70+ years since that tragedy.
The Friends of the Port Chicago National Memorial is prepared to assist you and your staff in the review of the historical, legal and archival materials to assist you in considering such an initiative. In addition we have included along with this letter a copy of the legal brief that was used in 1999 in the application presented to President Clinton on behalf of Mr. Meeks. We thank you for your past support for the memory of those who sacrificed their lives at Port Chicago Naval Magazine, and we request your continued attention to the need for restorative justice for those loyal and brave Americans who survived.
Friends of Port Chicago Board of Directors
The Reverend Diana McDaniel, President
Robert Allen, Ph.D., Secretary
David Salniker, L.L.M.,Treasurer
John A. Lawrence, Ph.D, Retired Chief of Staff for Hon. Nancy Pelosi & Hon. George Miller
Marc Bruner, Esq.
Zoe Polk, Esq.
Camarin Madigan, Esq., General Counsel
This letter is endorsed by:
- The Honorable George Miller, retired Congressman of the 11th Congressional District, California
- Robert L. Allen, Ph.D., author of The Port Chicago Mutiny: The Story of the Largest Mass Mutiny Trial in U.S. Naval History
- Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center
- East Bay Regional Park District
- Equal Justice Society
- Sandra Evers-Manly, President, Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center and
- Founder Port Chicago Survivors and Family Members Support Group
- Michael Harris, Senior Attorney, National Center for Youth Law
- The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area
- National Park Conservation Association
- San Francisco Veterans Affairs Commission
- San Francisco Human Rights Commission
- San Francisco Board of Supervisors
- Spencer Sikes II, son of survivor of explosion
- Steve Sheinkin, author of The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights