Port Chicago Mutiny: Clinton Pardons last survivor Freddie Meeks, 80

August 21, 20120 Comments

Fifty-five years after his conviction for mutiny during World War II for refusing to load munitions after an explosion that killed 320 people in Port Chicago, 79-year-old Freddie Meeks was pardoned Thursday by President Clinton.

Meeks, who lives in Los Angeles, is believed to be one of just two surviving members of the all-black, 50-man crew of sailors who were sentenced to three months in prison following the July 17, 1944, disaster at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine.

Meeks suffered a stroke in August and is in poor health. He was the only member of the crew to make a formal request for a pardon. His application was filed in February.

Although the presidential pardon was specifically for Meeks, Brian Busey, his Washington, D.C., attorney, said that Clinton’s action was an implicit condemnation of the prosecution and conviction of the African-American sailors.

“Mutiny is an usurpation of authority,” Busey said. “That is clearly not what happened. At worst, they were guilty of refusing an order to return to work, loading ammunition.”

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and 33 other members of Congress sent a letter to Clinton in September urging him to pardon Meeks. Earlier, veterans groups, the NAACP and the California legislature had supported the pardon.

The horrific explosion occurred during the loading of a transport ship at Port Chicago, the northern tip of what is now the Concord Naval Weapons Station. The blast, felt as far away as Nevada, destroyed the ship and another docked next to it. It killed 320 and injured 390 more. The blast flattened the town of Port Chicago; its debris can still be found along the banks of the Suisun Bay.

It was the worst domestic loss of life during World War II.

Two hundred of the dead and 226 of the injured were African American sailors, who worked under segregated conditions throughout the war.

Although no cause was found for the explosion, Navy investigators blamed the black sailors, insinuating that they were intellectually incompetent to handle loading operations. After the explosion, the black sailors were denied leave, while white officers were given 30 days’ leave to help get over the disaster.

In the days following the explosion, the sailors were ordered to return to work loading ammunition aboard the ships bound for the Pacific theater. Two hundred and fifty eight refused to do so. They were taken to the Naval Yard at Mare Island and threatened with court-martial. All but 50 agreed to return to work. They received summary courts-martial, lesser punishments and returned to work. The other 50 were subjected to the harsher general courts-martial and convicted of mutiny.

“We didn’t really deserve what we got, but we got it and we had to put up with it,” Meeks said in May.

The mutiny trial attracted the attention of a young Thurgood Marshall, who sat in on the proceedings, but went mostly unremembered until 1990 when Bay Area historian Robert Allen wrote a book about it. It then caught the attention of local media and lawmakers, who petitioned the Navy to overturn the convictions, based on the fact that they were racially motivated.

In 1994, the Navy determined that the sailors were, indeed, subjected to racial prejudice, but there were no grounds to overturn their courts-martial.

The Navy concluded that the black sailors had a “reasonable basis of fear” in their refusal to load ammunition after an ammunitions dump explosion at the dock. But “the secretary of the Navy concluded that neither racial prejudice nor other improper factors tainted the original investigations and trials,” the Navy said.

The Navy acknowledged “there can be no doubt” the seamen were victims of racial prejudice in being put in segregated units and assigned to manual labor jobs.

After the Navy refused to overturn the convictions, the only recourse that remained was a petition to the president for a pardon.

Jack Crittenden, 75, of Montgomery, Ala., the only other known survivor of the Port Chicago mutiny trial, has refused to seek a pardon. Instead, he has said, he would like to see the families of the men killed in the blast get the full death benefits they were due from the military.

Crittenden said that each family should have been entitled to $5,000, but that Congress reduced the payment to about $3,000 for the survivors of Port Chicago.

The NAACP passed a resolution at its July convention urging Clinton to “pardon the Port Chicago trial survivors, restore their benefits and make the survivor’s benefits available to the widows of those convicted in the unfair trial.”

Rep. Miller, who led an 11-year battle to win recognition for and the rehabilitation of their names for the 50 defendants, observed in a prepared statement that “evidence now demonstrates that, contrary to the assertions at the time, the explosives were highly volatile and the loading techniques were

unsafe.”

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The Port Chicago disaster was a deadly munitions explosion that occurred on July 17, 1944, at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Port Chicago, CaliforniaUnited States. Munitions detonated while being loaded onto a cargo vessel bound for the Pacific Theater of Operations, killing 320 sailors and civilians and injuring 390 others. Most of the dead and injured were enlisted African-American sailors.

A month later, continuing unsafe conditions inspired hundreds of servicemen to refuse to load munitions, an act known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. Fifty men—called the “Port Chicago 50″—were convicted of mutiny and sentenced to long prison terms. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison.

During and after the trial, questions were raised about the fairness and legality of the court-martial proceedings. Due to public pressure, the United States Navy reconvened the courts-martial board in 1945; the court affirmed the guilt of the convicted men. Widespread publicity surrounding the case turned it into a cause célèbre among African Americans and white Americans; it and other race-related Navy protests of 1944–1945 led the Navy to change its practices and initiate the desegregation of its forces beginning in February 1946.In 1994, the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial was dedicated to the lives lost in the disaster. more

Filed in: Black HistoryBlack MenExtermination of Black PeopleSabotage of the Black RaceWhite Supremacy
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