Freddie Meeks, 83, Port Chicago Sailor Who Was Pardoned, Dies

August 21, 20120 Comments

July 17, 1944 The Port Chicago disaster occurred when an ammunition depot at Port Chicago, California exploded killing 320 men, including 202 African Americans assigned by the Navy to handle explosives. The resulting refusal of 258 African American men to return to the dangerous work became known as the Port Chicago Mutiny. 208 of the men were convicted of disobeying orders, reassigned to menial tasks, and given bad conduct discharges which meant the loss of all veteran’s benefits. The remaining 50 were formally charged, convicted of disobeying orders and making a mutiny, and sentenced to time in jail. In 1999, President William Clinton pardoned Freddie Meeks, one of the few “Port Chicago 50” still alive. From Today in Black History Web Site
Published: June 30, 2003
NY Times

Freddie Meeks, a former sailor whose presidential pardon four years ago recalled the largest mutiny case in American history and the plight of black servicemen in the segregated military of World War II, died on June 19 in Los Angeles. He was 83.

The cause was complications from diabetes, his family said.

At 10:18 p.m. on July 17, 1944, an explosion ripped through the Navy’s Port Chicago ammunition depot 30 miles northeast of San Francisco while Navy stevedores, all of them black, were loading shells and bombs aboard the cargo ship E. A. Bryan, bound for the Pacific.

The blast, its cause never determined, killed 320 men, 202 of them black sailors, and injured 390 others. It vaporized a 1,200-foot pier, sank two ships and could be felt in Nevada.

Three weeks later, 258 black sailors stationed at Port Chicago were sent to the nearby Mare Island depot to load ammunition. Fearful that another disaster could occur since the Navy had provided no formal training in the dangerous job, the sailors refused to work. Most soon relented, but 50, among them Mr. Meeks, of Natchez, Miss., a seaman second class, remained adamant.

Mr. Meeks had been in Oakland on a three-day pass when the Port Chicago explosion occurred, but he later helped recover body parts.

“To see the wreckage and all the people that were killed, the way it blew them all to pieces, you didn’t want to go and fool with it anymore,” he recalled long afterward in a New York Times interview. “You see, there weren’t any bodies, there were just pieces of flesh they shoveled up, put them in those baskets and brought them into the warehouse.”

In October 1944, the 50 sailors were convicted of mutiny at a court martial and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Thurgood Marshall of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. sought to have the verdicts overturned, maintaining that the sailors had been victims of prejudice, since blacks in the Navy could only be laborers, stewards and cooks and that they had never sought to undermine military authority.

The Navy upheld the convictions, but Mr. Meeks and virtually all the others were released from prison early in 1946 and discharged “under honorable conditions.” The Navy announced then that race would no longer be a factor in filling its jobs.

But the stigma of a mutiny conviction remained. Mr. Meeks told his wife, Eleanor, about the episode but kept it from his children for almost 50 years. He worked as a butler in Hollywood and as a security guard for CBS and the Los Angeles City Housing Authority and never told his employers about his past.

The episode was remembered in the book “The Port Chicago Mutiny” by Robert L. Allen (Warner, 1989) and several television productions.

In 1994, a Navy review panel upheld the convictions on the ground that race was not a factor in the verdicts. But it found that assigning black sailors to manual labor had been “clearly motivated by race and premised on the mistaken notion that they were intellectually inferior.”

That summer, the National Park Service dedicated the Port Chicago National Memorial at the disaster site, rebuilt as the Concord Naval Weapons Station.

In May 1999, the law firm Morrison & Foerster sought a presidential pardon for Mr. Meeks after being approached by Representative George Miller, Democrat of California.

Mr. Meeks said at the time: “After all these years, the world should know what happened at Port Chicago. It should be cleared up that we did not commit mutiny, and we were charged with that because of our race.”

In December 1999, President Bill Clinton pardoned Mr. Meeks, one of three known survivors of the 50 convicted sailors. Mr. Clinton noted the segregation in the wartime Navy and the trauma resulting from the explosion.

Since pardons do not expunge convictions, it was a symbolic gesture.

“It was a recognition there was a tragic episode of racial injustice,” Brian Busey, one of Mr. Meeks’s lawyers in the pardon request, said in an interview last week.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Meeks is survived by his sons Daryl, of Los Angeles, and Brian, of Denver; a daughter, Cheryl Jackson of Los Angeles; six grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

After receiving his pardon, Mr. Meeks said he had never lost hope of vindication.

“I knew God was keeping me around for something to see,” he said. “But I am sorry so many of the others are not around to see it.”

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