Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Port Chicago 50

Steve Sheinkin's newest book focuses on civil rights and the military.  During WWII, African American men were actively recruited by several branches of he military, but men who had hoped to defend their country in battle were soon disappointed.  And any hope that military service would further the cause of civil rights and put an end to segregation and discrimination was soon extinguished.

Barracks and training facilities were segregated.  Black and white soldiers weren't even allowed to eat together.  Often black soldiers had to wait until white soldiers had finished eating and take the leftovers.  To make matters worse, black soldiers were not assigned to combat positions.  Instead they were relegated to cleaning, cooking, or in the case of the Port Chicago 50, loading ammunition onto ships to be sent to the battle front.

Port Chicago was a naval base where many black sailors were stationed to handle ammunition.  The work was physically challenging and often dangerous.  To make matters worse, the men received almost no training on how to handle the dangerous explosives.  Plus, the officers would often ride the men to work faster because they placed bets on whose unit could work faster.

It's not a surprise that disaster finally struck, and many men were killed, injured, or left traumatized.  Shortly after the disaster that killed many of their friends and fellow sailors, 250 men refused to return to work loading ammunition because they feared for their safety.  Nothing had changed at Port Chicago, and the men were tired of risking their lives in unnecessarily dangerous conditions.  Add in the fact that only black sailors were assigned to the task, and the situation becomes a clear case of racism.

Fifty of the men were eventually charged with mutiny.  They faced a trial and possible imprisonment or death.  Add in a young Thurgood Marshall who saw this as a clear case of discrimination, and you have a fascinating court room drama about the end of segregation in the military.

Pair this book with Courage Has No Color by Tanya Lee Stone for an in depth examination of segregation in the military.  I highly recommend both titles!

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