Friday, April 10, 2015

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin

Steve Sheinkin is one of my favorite historical writers. His narrative nonfiction writing has the drama and characters found in any fiction novel, with spot-on pacing, and meticulous research. Don't miss this one.  Set during World War II, the Navy has changed policies so that blacks can enlist, but this does not mean equality. Instead, Sheinkin reveals the institutionalized racism in American society, military, and government showing how a small group of fifty men, out of fear, were one of the players in changing attitudes toward African Americans.

In July 1944, an explosion so huge it was mistaken for an earthquake happened at Port Chicago, as sailors were loading munitions on ships. Over 200 black men and 100 white men died at the pier. Only African Americans were assigned to load munitions and after the explosion hundreds tried to voice their fears regarding the dangerous job. No one listened. Unsafe conditions continued and Sheinkin shows how the African Americans were exploited by the Navy. As the men were being marched to load ammunition on another ship after the explosion that killed over 300 men, hundreds refused to go. But when they Navy threatened to charge them with mutiny and shoot them, only fifty were brave enough to continue to take a stand.

A court trial ensued showing the deep prejudices that were prevalent at the time. The courtroom drama and the lawyers building their cases captures the legal processes. Not all of the text is heavy. Sheinkin balances some light moments. The ending has a funny story of how a black sailor made best friends with a white sailor by fighting him. The fight ended up with them both respecting each other and the white sailor saying he learned that "a man is a man" regardless of skin color. Other interesting asides were Eleanor Roosevelt following the case and putting pressure on the Navy officer who could change things and Thurgood Marshall working on behalf of the men in the early stages of his famous career.

History shows that at times when an injustice occurs on the magnitude of the conviction of the Port Chicago sailors, people find the courage to stand up and protest the mockery of it. While these young sailors, many teenagers, didn't realize the significance they would have on history at the time in changing the plight of African Americans, they did not regret their actions as old men as the Epilogue explains. It also shows when the justice system fails to protect basic rights. While this book isn't as complex as "Bomb," it is just as compelling and will reach a younger audience. The primary photographs, graphics, oral histories, documentaries, and Navy documents make it an impressive work. Men stood up for what was wrong at great personal risk. This story is worth noting.

5 Smileys

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