The Port Chicago 50
Contributor: C. Peter Chen
Review Date: 4 May 2016
Full Title: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
As the author Steve Sheinkin put it, before Jackie Robinson, before Rosa Parks, before Martin Luther King, there were the Port Chicago 50. Despite WW2 placing great demands for manpower, the US Navy continued to mistreat the African-American minority. At Port Chicago, California, United States, a group of African-Americans, who were full members of the US Navy, were treated as unskilled labor. Without proper training, they were tasked with the loading of ammunition aboard transports destined for the western Pacific. On 17 Jul 1944, an accident occurred, triggering an explosion that killed 320 and wounded 390, most of which were African-American stevedores. In early Aug 1944, an African-American work party refused to load ammunition, for that the US Navy had done nothing to improve safety nor to provide training. 50 of them were found guilty of mutiny by a court martial and were sentenced to hard labor.
Sheinkin's The Port Chicago 50 told the story of the men, with much focus on the details of the events leading up to the explosion, the disobedience, and the court martial proceedings. Although I had learned of this event in a previous book, The Color of War, I was still taken aback by the two parallel paths taken by the Americans, on one hand freeing peoples from Axis oppression, but on the other hand failing to view their own minority populations as equals. As with The Color of War, this book left me shaking my head, unable to comprehend how different things were merely 70 years ago, and how much situations had improved, despite there are still much ground to cover. Sheinkin perhaps placed a bit too much weight on the Port Chicago incident in terms of it being said to be a major milestone in the civil rights movement of African-Americans in the United States, but it undoubtedly played a part, and the author did a great work with the telling of this American story. I had also enjoyed his dramatic narrative which placed me inside the court room.
I had reviewed this title in its audio book format. Dominic Hoffman did a good job with the reading, meanwhile offering enjoyable voice acting.
The Port Chicago 50 made a great diversion from the typical histories and memoirs of the war, and I would recommend it for those interested in the history of the civil rights movement in America.
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James Forrestal, Secretary of the Navy, 23 Feb 1945