Senators Request Exoneration for African American Sailors Convicted of Mutiny During World War II
Washington - U.S. Senators Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein (both D-CA) today sent a letter urging President Barack Obama to take executive action to exonerate 50 African American sailors wrongly convicted of mutiny following one of the worst home-front disasters of World War II at the Port Chicago Naval Base in Concord, California.
"Port Chicago serves as a stark reminder of both the sacrifice of the brave service members who served there and of the painful legacy of a segregated military," Boxer and Feinstein wrote in the letter. "We urge you to take executive action to restore justice to these 50 sailors who signed up to serve our country in World War II but were instead victims of racism and unjust convictions."
On July 17, 1944, a group of young African American sailors was assigned to load bombs and ammunition onto naval ships at Port Chicago, a segregated naval base in California. Insufficient training on the handling the dangerous munitions and hectic loading schedules contributed to a catastrophic explosion of nearly 5,000 tons of ammunition that killed 320 servicemembers, including 202 African American sailors who were loading the munitions onto the ships.
After the accident, the white officers operating the base ordered African American sailors immediately back to work loading munitions, but many refused, citing unsafe conditions. The Navy arrested hundreds of sailors on various charges, and 50 of these men, known as the "Port Chicago 50" were charged with mutiny. All were African American and all were convicted.
Thurgood Marshall took up the case of the Port Chicago 50, and although he was unable to have the convictions overturned, President Truman gave them clemency after the war ended.
A later review of the trial confirmed that race played a significant factor in the harsh sentences handed down, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the surviving members of the Port Chicago 50. But the records for the 49 other sailors remain unchanged.
Calling the tragedy a "grave injustice," the Senators wrote that exonerating the 50 sailors "would demonstrate our commitment to a just and equal society for all Americans."
In 2010, President Obama signed into law legislation introduced by Senators Boxer, Feinstein and former Congressman George Miller to designate the Port Chicago Memorial site as part of the National Park Service. While this memorial serves to honor and remember the Port Chicago 50, there is more to be done to set the historical record straight.
The full text of the letter follows:
September 29, 2015
The Honorable Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
We write to you today to urge you to take executive action on behalf of the 50 African American sailors-members of the group known as the "Port Chicago 50"-who were wrongfully convicted of mutiny following the tragic accident at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in 1944.
In the midst of the United States military campaign in the Pacific during World War II, young African American sailors were assigned to load bombs and ammunition onto ships at Port Chicago, a segregated naval base near Concord, California. In July 1944, an explosion ripped through the loading area instantly killing 320 servicemembers, including 202 African American sailors who were working at the facility at the time.
Several days after the accident, the white officers operating the base ordered black sailors back to work loading munitions, but many sailors refused citing unsafe conditions and poor training on how to handle these weapons. Fifty of the men were put on trial for mutiny, convicted and sentenced to years of hard labor. Following their conviction, Thurgood Marshall-then an attorney with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-took up the case, and although he was unable to have the convictions overturned, President Truman gave them clemency after the war ended.
The trial highlighted the deeply ingrained racial inequality within the Navy at the time and brought out into the open the systematic discrimination against African Americans at Port Chicago, and in the Armed Forces more broadly. The disaster and subsequent actions of the "Port Chicago 50" contributed to a change in attitudes that led to the integration of our military.
A review by the Navy in 1994 affirmed the widespread presence of racism at the Port Chicago Magazine, while other studies have documented the racial nature of the prosecutions. Following a Congressional initiative, in December 1999, President Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the surviving members of the "Port Chicago 50." Yet, for the other 49 men whose civil disobedience caused our country to reexamine the racial divides that plagued our military, the record remains unchanged.
Port Chicago serves as a stark reminder of both the sacrifice of the brave service members who served there and of the painful legacy of a segregated military. That's why we were proud when you signed into law in 2010 legislation we introduced to designate the Port Chicago Memorial site as part of the National Park Service. This memorial will forever honor the sacrifices of the hundreds who died in the explosion at Port Chicago and will ensure that those who participated in the events that occurred after the tragedy are not forgotten.
However, there is more to be done to correct this grave injustice. We urge you to take executive action to restore honor to these 50 sailors who signed up to serve our country in World War II but were instead victims of racism and unjust convictions. Their exoneration would demonstrate our continued commitment to a just and equal society for all Americans.
Thank you for your consideration of this important request.
United States Senator
United States Senator