California’s U.S. senators asked President Barack Obama on Tuesday to take executive action to exonerate 50 African American sailors wrongly convicted of mutiny after the worst home-front disaster of World War II at the Port Chicago Naval Base in Concord.
“Port Chicago serves as a stark reminder of both the sacrifice of the brave service members who served there and of the painful legacy of a segregated military,” Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein wrote in their letter to the president. “We urge you to take executive action to restore justice to these 50 sailors who signed up to serve our country in World War II but were instead victims of racism and unjust convictions.”
On July 17, 1944, a group of young African-American sailors was assigned to load bombs and ammunition onto naval ships at the segregated naval base at Port Chicago. Insufficient training and hectic loading schedules led to an explosion of nearly 5,000 tons of ammunition, killing 320 servicemembers including 202 African-American sailors who were loading the munitions.
After the blast, white officers who ran the base ordered African-American sailors immediately back to work loading munitions, but many refused, citing unsafe conditions. The Navy arrested hundreds on various charges, and 50 – known as the “Port Chicago 50” – were charged with mutiny. All were convicted.
Thurgood Marshall – later a U.S. Supreme Court justice – took up the case and, although Marshall was unable to have the convictions overturned, President Truman gave the 50 clemency after the war ended. A later review of the trial confirmed that race played a significant factor in the harsh sentences handed down, and in 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the surviving members of the Port Chicago 50. But the records for the 49 other sailors remain unchanged.
That’s a “grave injustice,” the Senators wrote, and exonerating all 50 sailors “would demonstrate our commitment to a just and equal society for all Americans.”
President Obama in 2009 signed into law legislation introduced by Boxer, Feinstein and former Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, to designate the Port Chicago Memorial site as part of the National Park Service.
Read the full text of the senators’ letter, after the jump…