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

Steve Sheinkin
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.


Reviewed: 2016-11-12

Winning World War II was a transformative moment in our American narrative as it positioned our country as thee Superpower of all other Superpowers. Our victory abled us to flex our political, social, and economic muscle around the world. Domestically, the United States, entered an era of economic, social, technological prosperity, however, there was one demographic group who were not recipients of such dividends. The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for the Civil Rights by Steve Sheinkin describes how African American seamen, men fighting against the tyranny of the Axis power, were regarded in their country as second class citizens even if they were sacrificing their lives to protect the hopes and dreams of America.  On July 17, 1944, worked by African-Americans, ammunition was being loaded onto two cargo ships that headed to the Pacific at Port Chicago, in Contra Costa County, California.  The loading of approximately 2,000 pounds of bullets and bombs was a nonstop 24-hour task. The seamen received minimum training, therefore, the movement of ammunition was extremely precarious and physically wearisome.  At 10:18, blasts killed 320 people, specifically, 202 African American men, destroyed the SS E.A. Bryan, and the blast blew the 1,200-foot long pier into tiny pieces of wood that now cover the California seafloor. In true American work ethic, the commanding officers expected the surviving enlisted officer to continue their work, however, 50 men, concerned about their safety, voiced their opinions about the unsafe conditions of loading, and refused to return to work if changes were not enacted.   For this, the men were found guilty of abandoning their duty; they were charged with mutiny, and ultimately sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.  In 1946, the seamen were released but were forced to remain in the Navy. Due to legislation, the victims’ family were awarded $3,000 dollars instead of the $5,000 dollars due to their race. 

Port Chicago is ready made for an interdisciplinary unit between literature, social studies, and advanced math and science course.  ELA courses are fiction heavy curriculum; the inclusion of non-fiction would demonstrate that literature is a multi-faceted discipline that goes beyond the scope of “Once upon a time” or the five steps of plot development.  Besides the topic of slavery and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the contributions of African Americans or their history is barely taught. Finally, science and math educators can create a project by designing a mechanism that considers weight, volume, distance, and pulleys and levers that would have prevented the Port Chicago incident and future incidents. 

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