With Black History Month in February, now is a good time to read The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. This mostly forgotten story about segregation in the military during World War II recounts events that preceded the well-reported integration of major league baseball in 1947 and the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s. The author Steve Sheinkin poses that the courage of the black sailors who refused to load ships Naval ships with bombs and ammunition days after an explosion that killed 320 black sailors gave direction to later civil rights efforts.
On July 17, 1944 at San Francisco Bay's Port Chicago, only black sailors died because only black sailors were on the docks loading Naval ships at the port. Many of them had wanted to be on battle ships in the Pacific, but the Navy had refused to assign them. Instead, they were assigned to very dangerous work for which they had no formal training. White commanders pressed them to load heavy weapons with increasing speed. According to some accounts, disaster was inevitable.
Few whites noticed the story of the disaster in newspapers filled with other war stories. Black newspapers and the NAACP noticed. The latter sent its attorney Thurgood Marshall to defend the 50 sailors who refused to load ships until safety issues were addressed.
A key part of The Port Chicago 50 is the military trial with examination of witnesses and impassioned arguments by the prosecutors and defending attorneys. After weeks of proceedings, the 50 were all found guilty within minutes and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor. Sheinkin recounts appeal efforts and how the men were very quietly released after the war ended.
The Port Chicago 50 is aimed at young readers by the same author who won awards for The Bomb. It is worth reading in print with illustrations or as an audiobook by readers of all ages.
Sheinkin, Steve. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights. Roaring Brook Press, 2014. 200p. ISBN 9781596437968.
audiobook: Listening Library, 2014. 3 compact discs. ISBN 9780804167444.