Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Port Chicago 50 (final)

I don't know about you, but I felt like I had a front row seat at the trial of the Port Chicago 50. I liked how the author used excerpts from the trial transcript to give us a primary source narrative.

The Port Chicago 50 were tried and convicted of the outrageous charge of mutiny.

Our legal rights have so many layers: there are civil rights, political rights, and social rights. 

  • Can you name some groups of people who have had to fight for equal protection under the law?

This book began with a hero and ended with the emerging Civil Rights movement and its heroes. 

  • Can you think of anyone who you consider a Civil Rights hero today?
  • Can you think of any time recently where you have seen people marching or protesting for their civil rights?
  • What stories are unfolding in your community, or in the U.S., or around the world regarding civil rights?

After reading this story, the word that keeps coming to my mind is... unfinished.  This was an account of a time in history, but I feel that we are still living parts of this story. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Port Chicago 50 (The Fifty)

"Man it was awful," Jack Crittenden remembered. "You'd see a head floating across the water - just the head - or an arm."

For several days after the explosion, men with only minor injuries were given the task of clean up and body recovery. There were no living witnesses of the blast. No one who was on the boats or pier that night survived.

There is a great podcast of This American Life entitled 'The Job That Takes Over Your Life.' Listen to Act Three: The Port Chicago 50.

If you were a survivor of such a horrific night, would you return to work in the same unsafe conditions? 

Of the 328 surviving black enlistees, fifty men refused to return to work without a change in Navy procedures. Those fifty men were charged and convicted of mutiny. Mutiny, they were told, was punishable by death. It was the largest mutiny trial in the Navy's history.

From The History Channel:
"Six weeks of hearings followed in which the prosecution alleged that the men had “conspired each with the other to mutiny against the lawful authority of their superior naval officers.” The case caught the attention of future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, who was then working as a legal counsel for the NAACP. Marshall sat in on the last few days of the proceedings, and later argued, “This is not 50 men on trial for mutiny. This is the Navy on trial for its whole vicious policy toward negroes.” But despite the protests of Marshall and others, it took only 80 minutes of deliberation for the court to find the 50 black sailors guilty. Each man was sentenced to between eight and 15 years hard labor and a dishonorable discharge from the Navy."

These chapters have been a fascinating and painful look into the birth of the civil rights movement. How would you compare the racism and segregation experienced by The Port Chicago 50 to racism and segregation today? What about institutionalized racism and segregation?

Also, what, in your opinion, constitutes a "mutiny"?

And… When is doing something wrong right?

Let's read these chapters: Treasure Island, Prosecution, Joe Small, The Verdict, and Hard Labor. Check back here on December 28th.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Port Chicago 50 (the explosion)

Work and Liberty

The Work...

The men at Port Chicago described the scene on the loading pier as frantic, stressful, loud, chaotic - bombs rolling and clanking together, winch engines chugging and smoking, nets swinging through the air, sailors shouting and cursing, officers urging the men on.
"We were all afraid of an explosion," Small later said. "But there was very little that you could do about it. I mean, you had a day's work to do." 

The Liberty…

"It was just a one-street place," Robert Routh remembered; a few restaurants, a movie theater. "They didn't want blacks there at all. The townspeople didn't care for blacks."
"We're suppose to be fighting the same enemy," he (the black sailor) thought. "I don't know who my enemy is."
When he'd joined the Navy, people told him, "You're fighting for your freedom!"
Now he wondered: "Where's the freedom?" 

Have you ever been put into a situation that you felt was unsafe? If so, what did you do?

The Lawyer

There were an enormous amount of rights abuses reported by African American soldiers and sailors, but Thurgood Marshall did his best to demand that the country did more to protect black men in uniform.

In the Constitution, all Americans, regardless of race, are afforded the same basic rights. The Fourteenth Amendment specifically forbids states from denying any citizen "equal protection of the laws." Segregation and discrimination were unconstitutional, and Thurgood Marshall became a lawyer in order to prove it in court.

The segregation and discrimination in the Armed Forces were a mirror of American society at the time. For many people, the explosion on July 17th and the mutiny proceedings that followed became a symbol of what was wrong with American society as a whole. The consequences of the explosion would begin to reshape the way the Navy and society thought about civil rights and social standards.

Hot Cargo

The working conditions grew increasingly dangerous. The men were being pushed too hard. And, on July 17th, rather than loading one ship, two ships were docked at the pier. It was a recipe for disaster.

The Explosion
"Oh my God, we're being bombed!" someone shouted.

At 10:18pm a massive blast was felt all over the Bay Area in California. Seismographs recorded the explosion as a small earthquake.

The pier was gone. Both ships were gone. Buildings were destroyed. Smoke and fire rose nearly two miles into the air. 320 people were killed and 390 others were injured, nearly all were African American sailors.

Let's continue…

Read the chapters entitled The Inquiry, Column Left, Prison Barge, and The Fifty by December 13th.

When is doing something wrong right?

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Port Chicago 50 (first three chapters)

Who are some historical figures who have contributed to society?
What are a list of qualities that heroic figures share?

Dorie Miller was an African-American mess attendant in the Navy. He received the Navy Cross, the highest honor given by the United States Navy, for heroically saving his fellow sailors during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The first chapter ends with Admiral Chester Nimitz's anticipatory remarks, "I'm sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts." and Dorie Miller returning to his duties as a mess attendant, collecting laundry.

What impact did this opening chapter have on you as a reader? 

How is Steve Sheinkin setting the stage for his story?

The Policy

According to the United States Department of Defense website
When African Americans were allowed into the Navy again in 1932, it was as stewards and mess attendants.
The Navy began rethinking its policies when the nation entered World War II in December 1941. Navy officials had to deal with a shortage of manpower and well- focused political activities. But thousands of patriotic black men also clamored to join, inspired by the heroics of black sailors like Doris "Dorie" Miller and Leonard Roy Harmon.
One of the first American heroes of the war, Miller had been a mess attendant on the battleship USS West Virginia during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Though he had no gunnery training, Miller took charge of an anti- aircraft machine gun when its crew was disabled. Popular legend has it that he shot down several of the 29 enemy planes claimed that day. Ship's officers also cited him for his part in rescuing sailors who had jumped or been thrown overboard. Miller received the Navy Cross.  
Harmon, also a mess attendant, received the Navy Cross posthumously for valor during naval combat off Guadalcanal on Nov. 13, 1942.
The Navy would remain racially segregated in training and in most service units, but enlisted ratings opened to all qualified personnel in 1942.
The first African American officers in naval history were commissioned in 1944. The 12 commissioned officers and one warrant officer became known as the "Golden Thirteen."

If you'd like to read more about the influence of African American-owned newspapers, check out 
Black America's Double War and The Navy: Where do we stand

What is your first impression of Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox?

What is your first impression of Joe Small?


Present day Port Chicago is called the Concord Naval Weapons Station. It is home to the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial and part of the National Park Service.

Let's continue…

Read the chapters entitled Work And Liberty, The Lawyer, Hot Cargo, and The Explosion by December 6th

I want to leave you with a question to keep in your mind as you read through this book:

When is doing something wrong right?