The Port Chicago Mutiny
By Monica Moorehead, Workers World, 23 February 1995
This June will mark 50 years since racist Jim Crow laws were abolished in the U.S. Navy. This landmark decision came as a result of many protests, particularly those led by African American sailors.
For instance, a two-day hunger strike was organized by 1,000 Black construction battalion workers - Seabees - in March 1945 to protest against racist conditions and hiring practices. In December 1944, Black sailors stationed in Guam armed themselves against racist white Marines.
Then there was the heroic Port Chicago Mutiny of 1944, which led to the largest mass mutiny trial in U.S. naval history.
According to Robert L. Allen's book The Port Chicago Mutiny, an estimated 1 million African Americans served in the armed services during World World II, including 150,000 in the Navy. At the time, the armed forces were thoroughly segregated, as they were during World War I.
Some of the Black men who joined the Navy did so for patriotic reasons. But many more joined hoping, in the long run, to help bring about better conditions for themselves, their impoverished families, and their disenfranchised communities.
Instead, most of their dreams went up in smoke - literally.
Once in the Navy, the men found that, unlike their white counterparts, they couldn't rise up in rank. Further, to accompany the bitter segregation, they were relegated to the most menial, degrading, and hard-working jobs at slave wages. In short, they were modern slaves without the chains.
This was certainly true for Port Chicago, a naval ammunition base located on the Sacramento River, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco. Port Chicago was the first pier in U.S. history built for loading and shipping ammunition, including dangerous explosives, overseas.
Seventy-one white officers were put in charge of over 1,400 Black sailors, who loaded the ammunition in three round-the-clock seven-hour shifts. These enlisted men, many barely out of high school, were not made aware of the dangers involved in this work. To make matters worse, the white officers had no experience in handling ammunition. They ignored all the grievances brought to their attention by the Black enlistees.
EXPLOSION CHANGED EVERYTHING
And then a tragic explosion of ammunition took place on July 17, 1944 at 10:18 p.m. Three hundred twenty men were killed instantly - including 202 Black enlisted men. Two hundred thirty - three Black enlisted men were among the 390 injured.
This disaster accounted for 15 percent of all Black naval casualties during World War II.
A Naval Court of Inquiry was held four days later to investigate the cause of the explosion. The Navy found the cause to be "incompetence" on the part of the Black seamen. The racist chain of command was let completely off the hook.
Congress introduced a bill to grant the families of the dead $5,000 compensation. The arch-racist Mississippi representative, John Rankin, objected to the amount once he found that most of the beneficiaries were Black. Congress buckled under and reduced the amount to $3,000.
NEXT STEP: WORK STOPPAGE
On Aug. 9, Black sailors at Port Chicago staged a spontaneous work stoppage, which amounted to a mutiny. Two hundred fifty-eight men were imprisoned in a barge and kept in cramped quarters similar to the slave ships.
Following intense harassment and even death threats, officers singled out 50 men as the leaders of the mutiny. Those men were put in solitary confinement at Camp Shoemaker and eventually charged with conspiring to commit a mutiny. The other 208 men were quickly court martialed during individual hearings at the same camp. They were charged with refusing to obey orders.
The NAACP defense team represented the 50 sailors. Its chief counsel was Thurgood Marshall, who eventually became the first African American Supreme Court justice.
The defense focused on three aspects they felt deserved the most attention: the use of Black seamen as slave laborers in segregated instances; the unsafe conditions at Port Chicago; and the unfair manner in which the 50 were singled out.
After 32 days of hearings--and only 80 minutes of deliberations - the 50 men were found guilty of organizing a mutiny. They were sentenced to 15 years in prison and received dishonorable discharges. Some of the sentences were reduced. The other 208 defendants received bad conduct discharges and three months' forfeiture of pay.
While the NAACP lawyers appealed the verdict, many progressive Black and white groups and individuals protested the verdict, especially in the Bay Area. The NAACP organized its supporters to write letters of protest. In the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Navy reduced the sentences to 2 to 3 years.
In June, 1945, the Navy announced an end to segregated training in its camps.