Title: The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Author: Steve Sheinkin
Publisher: Roaring Brook Press (Macmillan)
Release Date: January 21, 2014
Acquired Via: Library
An astonishing civil rights story from Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin.
On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution.
This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America's armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.
The Port Chicago 50 is the story of 50 African-American men accused of mutiny by the Navy during World War II. Prior to the Civil Rights movement, these men pioneered the desegregation of the military, demanding safe working conditions for African-American soldiers. At the time, African-American were the only soldiers given the menial but dangerous job of loading live bombs onto Navy ships headed to war. Not allowed at sea themselves, these men were pushed to load ammunition faster, with no training on weapons safety or potential hazards. When an explosion erupted at the pier, the Port Chicago 50 refused to return to work and risk their lives until the Navy adopted universal safety measures. In response, the Navy court-martialed the Port Chicago 50 for mutiny. The Navy’s punishment for a mutiny conviction during wartime was death.
What surprised me about this story was the fact that I’d never heard it before. In school we’re taught about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. I read The Butler and voted in 2008 for the change promised by now President Obama. I rooted for Morgan Freeman when he played an African-American soldier in the Civil War movie Glory. But I didn’t realize the real segregation in our Armed Forces during World War II, some eighty years later. I never stopped to consider the hatred, racism, and bigotry American soldiers experienced at the hands of other white American soldiers. One of the chapters that struck me the hardest was when a group of African-American soldiers got stuck overnight in the South. Even in uniform, they couldn’t find a place to sleep and were only promised food at a restaurant if they would go around back and eat in the alley. However, a group of prisoners of war were also stuck overnight in the same town, and they were welcomed into the restaurant, given as much food and drink as they wanted. While the prisoners may have been German, they weren’t black.
The Port Chicago 50 was an excellent read, geared for anyone interested in WWII history or the Civil Rights Movement. A non-fiction book for young adults, it is a thin, easy read with short chapters and a fairly fast moving pace (much easier to relate to than a typical WWII monstrosity like The Monument’s Men). The Port Chicago 50 is a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award in the Young People’s Literature category, which was the reason that I picked the book up to read to begin with. And I’m so glad I did. I love entertaining, educational stories that make you think. I will continue thinking about this story for a long time.
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