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The Port Chicago Incident: How Unfair Segregation Led to Expanded Democracy
Whenever American soil and democracy were under attack, there was a rise in nationalism. This can be seen in the War of Independence and the 9/11 incident where many Americans found a cause to enlist in war and fight for their country (Tindall and Shi; Mccartney). World War II, despite the United States’ emphasis of isolationist foreign policies, was no different. When Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japan, both the US government and its citizens gained a reason to enter the war ("1941 Declaration"). The US announced war on both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, with the intent of defending democracy in Europe and Asia.
Democracy is defined as a government that is in the hands of the people, and to wield any form of governing power, one has to attain some form of the consent of the people. America waged the War of Independence against Britain because they weren’t being represented in Britain’s democratic government (“ Declaration of Independence”). Be it the town meetings in Plymouth or the modern-day Congress, the idea of popular sovereignty has always been engraved in an American’s heart.
However, before America entered World War II, things did not look well for the democracy that it promised to defend. While there was a general improvement in domestic economy and employment through war economics and the New Deal program, “not all felt the return of prosperity equally. Some Americans, blacks, in particular, were left behind as the economy geared up for war” (Kersten 13). FDR and federal war efforts had made “unemployment rapidly decrease[d] from 8,120,000 persons in 1940 to 5,560,000 persons in 1941 to 2,660,000 in 1942.” However, “less than six months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, a little over half - 144,583 out of 282,245 - prospective war-related jobs were reserved for whites only” (Kersten 13-14). This suggests that while there were improvements for the white population under FDR’s New Deal efforts and war-time economy, these benefits remained generally excluded from the African American population. The black workers were being underrepresented and suffered exclusive segregation from the American Jim Crow culture.
“While one goal of the Double V program was to conquer employment discrimination another was to eradicate discrimination in the armed services” (Kersten 15). During the neutral period, blacks were 10% of the American population and yet only 3% of the army, and African Americans lobbied and launched campaigns for banning discrimination in the military. Senator Robert F. Wagner from New York wanted an amendment that banned racial discrimination in all military branches. This view was attacked by Texas Senator Tom Connally. However, while this gave blacks more representation in the military, the clauses for the draft bill were extremely loose. The Army took advantage of this and used it to gatekeep African Americans from defending democracy (James 87). “The Navy was even worse” as “African Americans could only enlist in the galleys” (Kersten 15).
As the US entered the Second World War, African Americans realized that this was an opportunity for them - the US would look hypocritical if it claimed to fight for democracy despite ignoring racial discrimination at home. The popular Double V campaign was announced in 1942 and swore for victory against the fascist regimes in Europe and victory against the racists at home (Allen, “THE PORT” 5)”. The inequality in domestic employment and racial prejudice in the armed services led to “many African Americans [joining] civil rights groups such as the NAACP,” which “were dedicated to the Double V program” (Allen, “THE PORT” 5). In short, similar to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, there was an increased focus and support on racial issues when such problems came under scrutiny. During the Double V campaign, NAACP achieved a huge victory over appealing the Port Chicago case, an event infamously known for its racial discrimination whose aftermath led to a significant expansion of American democracy from its publicity and civil rights advancement.
Port Chicago was a town in California on Suisun Bay. In 1941, construction for a Navy munitions depot was planned shortly after Pearl Harbor and commenced in 1942. Likely an immediate response to the call to war, on December 8th, 1942, the first ship docked and was loaded at the Port (Bell and Elleman 198). During the war, Port Chicago became “the largest ammunition transshipment facility on the West Coast and was essential to the success of the war effort in the Pacific Theater” (“People”). Therefore, Port Chicago itself played an integral role in defending democracy by avenging America and attacking the imperial government in Japan.
In Port Chicago, all the workers were African Americans and were led by an all-white cast of naval officers (“The Port Chicago Mutiny - Black History”). The enlisted African Americans were organized into divisions led by a white officer and a black petty officer (Allen, “THE PORT” 7). The petty officers failed to communicate complaints about racial discrimination to their white superiors when they were brought up by the workers (Allen, “The Port” 52-53). As a result, they are antagonized by the workers for their “incompetence” and for acting like a “slave driver”(akin to a Judas Goat) (Allen, “The Port” 52-53). Their relationships often soured resulting in ineffectiveness on resolving workers’ issues (Allen, “The Port” 52-53). The black and white men lived in a segregated fashion. The social hierarchy demonstrated that there was no representation at Port Chicago for the blacks and that the white officers are absolutely unwilling to listen to the African Americans.
Safety issues were evident at this base. At Port Chicago, the blacks were ordered by white officers to load explosive ammunition onto ships. However, there was a catch: these men were not trained or taught how to load ammunition (Allen, “The Port” 41). Captain Kinne, the leader of Port Chicago, assumed the black sailors wouldn’t comprehend the posted safety regulations (Allen, “The Port” 45). In May 1944 the loading platform was widened. This expansion resulted in two ships being loaded at once, with twice as many men and twice the amount of explosives (Allen, “THE PORT” 8). The doubling of multiple factors in this equation meant a significant increase in risk. It wasn’t a simple problem of double the output, double the risk. Additionally, the white officers in Port Chicago raced and betted each other on which divisions could load ammunition faster (Allen, “THE PORT” 9). Captain Kinne kept track of the divisions’ average tonnage per hour (how fast they were loading) and incited a competitive nature to a dangerous and risky job (Allen, “The Port” 44). There was one time when the fastest division was rewarded with free movies (Allen, “THE PORT” 9). The white officers weren’t the ones loading, it was the black sailors. There were a lot of wrongs happening at this navy base, including how the black sailors were treated and the safety issues of racing inexperienced personnel loading explosives. While there was an increasing demand for ammunition on the frontlines during the war that could potentially justify the loading ramp-up and the racing, it did not offer explanations for the wrongful mistreatments, lack of proper training, and blatant racial discrimination existing at this base.
Tragically, things didn’t end well. On July 17th, 1944, the Liberty ship SS E. A. Bryan at Chicago Bay exploded at night, killing 320 men at the loading site (Allen, “THE PORT” 13). Of these men, 202 were African-Americans, and another 233 were injured, this was 15% of all US black casualties in World War II (“A CHRONOLOGY”). It was reported by an airman that the fireball was 3 miles in diameter (Allen, “The Port” 63). “It was the worst home-front disaster of World War II. In fact, it was the most powerful man-made explosion prior to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima a year later” (Allen, “THE PORT” 3).
A short time afterward, black sailors suspected that the white officers were going to have them continue loading as if nothing happened (Allen, “THE PORT” 19). Fearful of their safety, they engaged in civil disobedience. They refused to obey the officers’ orders or load ammunition, resembling an organized strike (Allen, “THE PORT” 19; Allen, “The Port” 9). The 50 men who refused to obey any form of orders were put on trial for being the ringleaders of mutiny (Allen, “THE PORT” 22). Through a fairly biased and rigged trial, where there were only 80 minutes of deliberation, all 50 were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment. It is important to recognize that these 50 were the victims of the Port Chicago explosion and the people who charged them were responsible for the bad working conditions that led to the Port Chicago explosion and mutiny (Allen, “THE PORT” 23).
The discrimination in both the trial and the navy base was noticed by Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP, who fought for an appeal case for the 50 men. In 1944, Marshall sent a letter asking about the unequal practices in Port Chicago to James Forrestal, the Secretary of the Navy at the time. Marshall asked Forrestal why only black sailors were loading and why weren’t they trained (Allen, “THE PORT” 24)? They then rallied the public to push for an appeal case. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt heard of the rally and also sent a letter to the Secretary (Allen, “The Port” 132-133; Allen, “THE PORT” 25). By then the war had ended and everyone’s eyes were on the racial discrimination in the US. This mutiny case was one of the spotlights, and it earned the sympathy of many angry blacks and liberal whites. The Port Chicago trial rally became one of the largest popular campaigns back then against black discrimination and prejudice in military service (Allen, “THE PORT” 25).
The effects of this event were huge. It was the largest domestic disaster in World War II and retained a lot of notoriety. The public pressure made it one of the representatives of the Double V program. Its immediate changes were seen as a success. The Navy gave in to the public pressure and discontinued segregation in training camps and other programs in 1945, although it could also be a countermeasure to ensure no more mutiny or organized strikes happened after the black population within the Naval services becomes less condensed. Forrestal released the 50 “mutineers” from their sentences in 1946 (Allen, “THE PORT” 26-27). The US military also recognized the hazard of inappropriate training and unsafe working conditions and the impairment these hazards posed to military operations. As the recognition for training and humane working conditions increased, this benefitted the unions and bottom-level workers, extending some representation to their needs.
In the long run, the Port Chicago case was a key representation of the Double V program and what it stood for - combating a misrepresentation of democracy and the practice of Jim Crow in the Armed Services and the United States. With help from the NAACP, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and the public, the Port Chicago case played a catalyzing role in the passing of President Truman’s executive order 9981. It banned racial discrimination in the Armed Forces. Compared to before the war, blacks were starting to be desegregated into the white divisions, there were more black officers appointed, and there was more representation for blacks in the US military.
The Port Chicago case did much more than just a military desegregation success. Being a poster child for the NAACP and the Double V, its victory was a milestone for the African Americans. It convinced them that their cause is achievable and to continue on their journey to the civil rights movement in the 60s. The public rallying brought forth many sympathetic white allies to the campaign, and more importantly, to the cause - something that would be passed down to the 1960s. These white allies would be essential in the civil rights movement like the Kennedys. The brave sailors of Port Chicago who refused to adhere to racial injustice through the nonviolent practice of civil disobedience paved the way for Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaigns, boycotts, and protests. While many of the sailors that day succumbed to threats and racial oppression, they taught the lesson to their successors so African Americans would never back down in front of racism again. On the grounds of achieving military integration and victory for the civil rights programs of its era, rallying public support for representation and racial equality, and being a progenitive factor of the civil rights movement, the Port Chicago incident was truly a huge victory for civil rights. As Port Chicago expanded civil rights, it also expanded representation and, as a result, democracy.
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