The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights
Roaring Brook, 2014 200 pgs.
Sheinkin offers a non-fiction account of the fifty African-American Navy sailors during World War who were tried and convicted of treason. We first see the conditions for African Americans in the military during this time peiod: segregated units and quarters, no room for advancement, limits to only manual labor and waiting on officers. At the Port Chicago navy base in California African American sailors loaded ammunition onto ships with no training or proper safety equipment or procedures. Officers challenged the men to go faster, often betting to see which unit was the quickest, regardless of safety. Eventually, the worst happened. A ship blew up and all the men loading the ammunition were killed. Even some men in the barracks were injured. Several of the loaders refused to continue their duties until conditions improved. The navy had the protesters arrested and brought to trial for treason. They were found guilty and sentenced to long jail time. New York Civil Rights lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, became aware of the case and kept the trial and its outcomes in the public eye. After many failed attempts at justice, Marshall finally saw that the Port Chicago 50 were released from jail and put out to sea to finish their time with the Navy. The case was instrumental in desegregating the United States armed forces and, eventually, the rest of the country.
This is for sure a huge year for books about civil rights. I feel like I have learned more about the civil rights movement in the past year than I have in my previous forty-seven. It is incredible that the United States armed forces were segregated and so blatantly racist as recently as World War II. That war is so glorified in our history. It must have been wonderful to be part of the "greatest generation" as long as you weren't Japanese American, female, or have dark skin. Sheinkin, as always, offers us an impeccably researched piece of non-fiction, ending with an extensive list of notes, bibliography and index. The topic is an undiscovered chapter of history, previously never captured in books for young people. As with Sheinkin's previous writings, this work is highly readable and can be enjoyed for pleasure. One complaint is that since much of the story involves a court case, the trial was a big part of the book. I got a little board during the legalese part of the story. Kids interested in court cases, and they are out there, would find this fascinating. Most kids won't make it through. I feel like this story would be better served as a chapter in a book about desegregating the armed forces, instead of the other way around. I was watching the excellent documentary series by Ken Burns on the Roosevelt's while I was reading this book, which touched on the some of the issues presented concerning discrimination in the armed forces and Eleanor's work to alleviate it. Her part in the fate of the fifty protesters is touched on in the book. I love it when my watching and reading overlap! The Port Chicago 50 is a superbly written and researched piece of non-fiction that is sure to win awards and will fill the bill for non-fiction book reports, but the subject matter may have a hard time speaking to young readers. Personally, I pick Freedman's Because they Marched as my favorite Civil Rights non-fiction selection of the year. This month a movie called Selma, dealing with the same subject matter, will be released, generating an easy audience for the Freedman book.