The following is a statement made on July 15,2023 by a representative of the CCCBA Port Chicago Taskforce at the 79th Commemoration of the Port Chicago Disaster.
Good morning. It is an honor to address you on behalf of the Contra Costa County Bar Association’s Port Chicago Task Force and to tell you about our efforts.
The Task Force is comprised of approximately 20 lawyers and non- lawyers who have been working hard since early 2022 to raise awareness about the Port Chicago Disaster and Mutiny Trial and equally importantly to seek exoneration of the Port Chicago 50.
Specifically, we seek the expungement of the mutiny convictions and the issuance of honorable discharges for the 50.
We see those convictions as a stain on our nation’s history. Fifty men were represented by 5 lawyers. They were restricted in the evidence they could offer about the conditions they faced. But the evidence offered against them was expansive. There was no individual assessment of these men, but instead the fifty were treated like a unitary whole. These are just examples of the flaws in the trial proceedings.
Thurgood Marshall traveled here, attended the trial and told the press about these flaws and others. This was during a span of years when Marshall and Charles Houston travelled the country representing the nation’s most vulnerable citizens who also faced discriminatory and flawed legal proceedings. Marshall called out the inequity and injustice of the mutiny trial proceedings. He helped to cause a national stir that caught the attention of many prominent Americans including Eleanor Roosevelt.
We are simply trying to press ahead with their work. We are trying to call the nation’s attention to the inequities of the mutiny convictions. We know the Navy has shown leadership in this area in the past. We know that today’s Navy teaches its members about discipline including that no one should follow an illegal or unlawful order. It takes courage to stand up to such an order but that courage represents the best of America’s values.
The Port Chicago 50 showed such courage. Their stance is emblematic of the best of what we have to offer as a society. We want as a society for the men and women in our armed services to hold those core values close and act accordingly.
In our view the Port Chicago 50 were brave and patriotic. Their actions helped to spark the modern civil rights movement by leading to the desegregation of the Navy in 1946 and the armed forces in 1948.
We are asking the Navy to recognize these aspects of this chapter in its history and make it right.
Our group is focused on the mutiny convictions because it is an historic injustice we want to see corrected, but we are certain that all of the men who served at Port Chicago and experienced the same conditions in 1944 – including the 320 killed in the explosion and the 208 who returned to loading ammunitions — would support our efforts.
The work of the task force has included trial re-enactments, historical webinars, letters to and meetings with government officials, an online petition at change.org that currently has over 1400 signatures, and most recently we are part of an effort to build a coalition of civil rights, veterans, religious and legal groups who share the goal of exoneration.
That coalition is growing!
We are mindful that last month the Navy exonerated the Philadelphia 15 and the task force sees parallels between the dissent of the 15 and the actions of the Port Chicago 50. We are hopeful that the Navy will exonerate the Port Chicago 50, and we will continue our efforts to persuade the Navy or the Congress to do so.
We understand that we are coming to this struggle after many years of effort by others including great Americans like Thurgood Marshall, Dr. Robert Allen, and Rev. Diana McDaniel, and the stalwart support of Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, before him George Miller, Barbara Lee, and John Garamendi and many other local political and civil rights leaders such as Senator Steve Glazer and Assembly Member Tim Grayson. We thank them all for their tireless advocacy for the Port Chicago 50 – their work has provided the basis for our efforts.
Please visit our table for more information on the work of the Contra Costa County Bar Association Port Chicago Taskforce and how you can get involved.