The Moral Universe – What Happened at Port Chicago was not Mutiny

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It seems impossible to start a new post without referring to current events. It is more important than ever, I believe, that white people understand the twisted history of the African-American experience in the United States. While many of the tragedies have led to civil rights legislation, the cumulative effect of this history has left scars on millions of our fellow citizens.

My friend Don told me about the Port Chicago incident last Labor Day weekend, and the subject has been on my “write about” list since. It was the release of Steve Sheinkin’s book on CD for young adults that finally spurred me to get down to business.

Port Chicago bookcoverThe Port Chicago 50 is a short and concise history of the explosion and the mutiny trial of 50 African-American sailors, a perfect read or listen for young people and adults as well. Read by Dominic Hoffman, it would make a good project for Black History Month. (Even though it is American history, I doubt you’ll ever find it in a regular history textbook.)

During World War II, thousands of African-American men were ready, willing and eager to sign up for military service. Joe Small went with a friend to a recruitment center to enlist in the Army. It was late in the day and the white officer was in a hurry to close the office. He signed Joe’s friend up for the Army and Joe for the Navy. He did not tell Joe that the Navy was segregated and that black men could only serve as mess workers and would never actually go to sea.

Joe was assigned to Port Chicago, at the time an isolated Naval Magazine outside of San Francisco. There he was assigned, along with other black servicemen, to load live ammunition and bombs onto ships. Joe was a born leader, and the other men looked up to him and often sought his advice; he became the foreman of his group. None of them was happy that the white officers often bet each other as to whose group could load the ammunition fastest. The sailors had had no training in loading live ammunition at all, and an offer by a San Francisco teamsters’ group to come instruct them was turned down by the Navy.

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The remains of the SS Quinault Victory. The SS E.A. Bryan was completely disintegrated by the blast.

On July 17, 1944, around 10 pm, during a loading session, a bomb went off, killing most every sailor nearby and even civilians in the town of Port Chicago while also rattling windows in San Francisco. The SSEA Bryan, carrying 4,600 tons of ammunition already, and the SS Quinault Victory, carrying 430 tons of bombs, were blown sky-high. The blast sent up a 30-foot wall of water. Of the 320 killed, 202 were black enlisted men. Of the 390 injured, 233 were black enlisted men. (These facts come from the American Merchant Marine at War website, www.usmm.org.)

After the blast, the black sailors were ordered back to work. On the parade ground, Joe and his group of 250 men stood still. One officer after another came out to harangue them, and 200 of the men eventually went back to work. Fifty men were detained in a barracks while the Navy tried to figure out what to do with them.

joe smallThe detained men held a meeting at which Joe was the unofficial chair. They decided to continue to refuse the load ammunition, saying that they were scared to do so because nothing about the operation had changed and another explosion could happen at any time.

The 50 were court-martialed on charges of mutiny. In fact, the military definition of mutiny was based on not just refusing orders, but actually attempting to take over the authorities and establish the mutineers’ own authority. The fact that the men had held a meeting indicated conspiracy, said the prosecutor, Lieut. Cmdr. Joseph Coakley, despite the fact that the men all volunteered to serve in active duty or any other duty than loading live ammunition.

Lieut. Gerald Veltmann’s defense of the 50 failed and they were all sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Thurgood Marshall, then an NAACP lawyer, appealed the verdict, but it was upheld.

Attempts were made over the years to exonerate and/or pardon the black sailors over the years. In 1999, President Clinton did pardon Freddie Meeks, 80 years old at the time. Mr. Meeks, one of the last surviving members of the 50, was grateful. However, a pardon is not the same as having the conviction overturned, and there are still activists who would like to see this happen.

The Navy was desegregated in 1945.

Where is the Hope?

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I haven’t posted for a while; someone I love has been desperately ill during the same time that the country has been coming apart amidst the tragedies of Ferguson and Staten Island and Cleveland and revelations of CIA torture. So many eloquent blogs and newspaper essays have commented on these subjects that I didn’t feel a need to add my voice at this time.

However, I had the privilege recently of interviewing three young African-Americans who live locally about this country’s ongoing turbulence in the wake of the failure of grand juries to indict policemen. From my white privilege background, I felt very humbled that they would trust me with their stories.

Their stories are for a newspaper article, so I cannot just repeat the article here. I do want to talk about the last question I asked them, though, which was “Where is the hope for you in all this?”

One young man, 25, had a bleak view. “I want to hope,” he said, “but I don’t believe” things will change without some kind of purge. He echoed the prophecy of John Brown as he gave his vision of much larger protests and loss of life of innocents and policemen before white people wake up to the reality of life in this country for people of color.

At the age of 12, this young man watched as his 18-year-old beloved brother was shot in the head by a policeman who believed he had drugs on him. Obviously, the experience traumatized him, and he still wavers between being a grown-up who demands respect and that 12-year-old who is in a lot of pain, but whistles in the dark.

Another young man, a 21-year-old who moved to this country from Uganda, said that the hope for him is that the US government will create a new federal department or system that will oversee police shootings of unarmed people and follow stipulated guidelines for what happens next rather than leaving that to local, and possibly biased, governments.

One of the sources of hope for me is in organizations that “think globally, act locally”; Western Massachusetts is privileged to have one such organization doing great work here. Multicultural BRIDGE (Berkshire Resources for Integration of Diverse Groups and Education) is the brainchild of Gwendolyn Hampton Van Sant. Coming from a background as a Spanish teacher, counselor, religious education teacher, and ASL interpreter, Gwendolyn first came to the area to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock.

Gwendolyn Hampton Van SantShe founded BRIDGE in 2007, and it has grown to be the go-to agency for cultural competency training, conflict resolution, resilience training for youth, leadership training, and more.

“We try to give people more tools to transform culture,” she said. ”We pull out the strengths in communities and overlay them with resilience. If you want cultural change, you need to bring out the positive.”

Much of the work that BRIDGE does is with elementary schools, training both teachers and students. In an area with a high population of children of color and low population of teachers of color, white teachers need to learn first to recognize where kids are struggling and how to build up their strengths. They need to be sensitive to generational poverty in the neighborhoods where they teach and be aware of ways in which they might be exacerbating problems by making remarks that they think are well-intentioned, but in fact, humiliate the child.

How does one teach resilience? I wondered. Gwendolyn defines resilience as the ability to come through adversity with positive results. I recalled Isabella Wilkerson writing in her magnificent book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, that the children of African-Americans who migrated to the North had a much more difficult time making their way in the world than their parents had. This is despite the fact that their parents were mostly the children of slaves and had worked as sharecroppers (little better than slaves); some had even been targeted by lynching mobs.

The children of these people, not having experienced the depredations of living in the South during Jim Crow, expected the North to grant them all the freedoms they sought and desired. It wasn’t necessarily so, especially in cities such as Chicago and St. Louis, and especially in the areas of housing and employment, the two most important areas of anyone’s life. Many did not have the resilience to work through the challenges and so dropped out of school and drifted into gangs.

That was in the 1920s and 1930s, but even now there is an identified syndrome called school to jail pipeline, through which some children of color are given up on before they can learn their strengths and find a path to the future. This is where BRIDGE comes in.

Parents’ forums, English language summer school, diversity training for white people, addressing economics and racism all go into the effort of interrupting patterns of systemic racism. Addressing gender identity issues is also part of BRIDGE’s mandate to create “leverage for equity,” as Gwendolyn put it.

BRIDGE has held two public dialogues on racism. The first attracted 200 people, the second 500. As BRIDGE gains in reputation, more people of all ethnic backgrounds, colors, income levels and sexual orientation are coming together to, as Stokely Carmichael first said, be part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

How can white people best be part of the solution? I asked Gwendolyn. The answer she gave: through educating ourselves so that we can use our white privilege to create change.

You can read much more about all that BRIDGE does at http://www.multiculturalbridge.org.

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A Facebook post went viral last week. It was from a young woman who lives in New York who had been angry about the problem of trying to get around the city amidst the protests that blocked highways and streets. Then she realized that she needed to be one of the people out on the street. As she watched other cars struggling to have a path cleared for them, the thought came to her that when society clears a path for justice for all citizens, then everyone will be able to get through.

I love this thought: clearing a path for justice. Yes, let us be part of that.