By Antonio Ray Harvey | California Black Media
A growing chorus of black leaders and activists in California is calling on the federal government to pardon 50 black sailors who they say were unfairly punished by the US Navy nearly 80 years ago.
Advocates are demanding payments from the families of sailors who died in the 1944 explosion at Port Chicago, which was the underlying cause for the Navy’s action against the military.
They say the families of sailors deserve more than an apology or a posthumous forgiveness. They should also get monetary compensation.
“The 50 African-American sailors in Port Chicago who took a stand against discrimination are to be remembered as heroes,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13).
In July 1944, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine, a few miles from the town of Martinez, was the scene of the biggest explosion on the American continent. The explosion rocked the San Francisco Bay Area and the disturbance was felt as far as Nevada.
About 320 sailors were killed instantly in the blast. Over 200 of the midshipmen and commissioned officers were young African Americans.
390 other soldiers and civilians were wounded, including 226 African-American men drafted. Only black sailors were given the dangerous task of loading ammunition without any prior training in the handling of weapons.
“The Port Chicago tragedy is another painful reminder of how our nation has to deal with its history of systemic racism,” Lee said.
Those killed or injured in the disaster loaded highly explosive bombs, anti-submarine weapons, torpedoes, shells and naval mines totaling 4,606 tons of ammunition on the merchant ships SS Quinault Victory and SS EA Bryant.
According to a 2009 California Senate Joint Resolution (SJR-21), drafted by former State Senator Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood), on the night of July 17, 1944, two transport ships loading ammunition at War destination in the Pacific at the Port Chicago Naval Base on the Sacramento River in California was suddenly engulfed in a gigantic explosion.
“What I am asking is that anything that has been made public where black people have been wronged must be put right,” said Reverend Amos Brown, vice chairman of the California Study and Research Task Force. develop redress proposals for African Americans at California Black Media (CBM). Brown is the pastor of Third Baptist Church in San Francisco and president of the city’s NAACP branch.
“We need to do our due diligence and get all the facts about this explosion. This is certainly a case where black people have been wronged and injured. There was a culture of neglect here and was widespread when it came to black people, ”Brown added.
The exact cause of the Port Chicago explosion is still unknown.
People familiar with the explosion say the incidents leading up to the disaster took place in a culture plagued by neglect and racism.
A series of injustices also followed. After the explosion, black sailors working at Port Chicago were ordered to continue loading the ships under the supervision of an all-white officer crew. Many surviving black sailors felt that their commanders had not addressed the safety issues that triggered the explosion, but still asked them to continue loading ammunition.
Soon the black sailors, who had been trained for combat in the US Navy, decided to hold a protest. Fearing that their lives might be in danger, they stopped working. In September 1944, the Navy accused 50 sailors from Port Chicago of disobeying orders and starting a mutiny.
A court martial has been called to try the men who organized what has been called “the biggest mutiny in naval history”. It took place for several weeks on Treasure Island outside of San Francisco.
The black sailors were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of forced labor in prison. Forty-seven of the 50 sailors were released in January 1946 while the other three spent additional months in prison.
Only one member of Port Chicago 50, Freddie Meeks, received a presidential pardon from Bill Clinton in December 1999. Meeks, who was released in 1946, died in 2003 in Los Angeles.
“I knew we had a good president and I thought he would do the right thing, and he did the right thing with this forgiveness,” Meeks, 80, said in an Associated Press article. December 24, 1999. “I’m not bitter because this is something that happened so long ago, you just survive it, that’s all.
Brown, 80, says the Port Chicago disaster was the result of recklessness, disregard for human safety and racism.
“All the evidence is there,” Brown told CBM, speaking by phone from his San Francisco home.
People’s World, a publication that provides information and analysis on trade union and democratic movements, reported that discrimination was even manifested in compensation awarded to the families of those killed.
The Navy paid $ 5,000 to white families but only $ 3,000 to black families, according to the 2009 article.
Brown made the statement about the Port Chicago incident after learning that a group of Democratic lawmakers were trying to revive an effort to pay the families of black servicemen who fought on behalf of the nation in World War II for benefits that have been denied or denied to them. to receive.
The federal legislative effort would compensate surviving spouses and all living descendants of black World War II veterans whose families were denied the opportunity to build wealth with housing and education benefits by through the Government Question Bill (GI).
The site of the disaster is now called the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, dedicated in 1994 to the recognition of the sailors who perished in the deadly explosion. The memorial, managed by the National Park Service, is located at the Concord Naval Weapons Station, near Concord.
Last summer, in honor of the 77th anniversary of the Port Chicago disaster, U.S. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) and Mark DeSaulnier (CA-11-Walnut Creek) introduced a House resolution, acknowledging the victims of the explosion.
The resolution called for the exoneration of the 50 African-American sailors who they say have been unfairly court-martialed by the navy.
“By calling for the exoneration of Port Chicago 50, our resolution would do justice to these sailors and recognize their courage as well as honor the service and sacrifice of the victims of this disaster,” said DeSaulnier.