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The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

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Chicago Lakefront 50/50 Fall 2011

In the 1990s, Freddie Meeks, one of the few still alive among the group of 50, was urged to petition the President for a . Others of the Port Chicago 50 had refused to ask for a pardon, reasoning that a pardon is for guilty people receiving forgiveness; they continued to hold the position that they were not guilty of mutiny. Meeks pushed for a pardon as a way to get the story out, saying "I hope that all of America knows about it... it's something that's been in the closet for so long." In September 1999, the petition by Meeks was bolstered by 37 members of Congress including , the U.S. representative for the district containing the disaster site. The 37 Congressmen sent a letter to President and in December 1999, Clinton pardoned Meeks, who died in June 2003. Efforts to posthumously exonerate all 50 sailors have continued. In 2004, author was reported as saying "...even for today it's important to have these convictions set aside."

The 50 remaining men‍—‌soon to be known as the "Port Chicago 50"‍—‌were formally charged in early September 1944 with disobeying orders and making a mutiny "with a deliberate purpose and intent to override superior military authority". This was a crime punishable by death since the United States was at war. Even if the men were not given death sentences, they could get prison terms of 15 years.

The Fifty/50 - West Town - Chicago, IL - Yelp


Power 50 | Chicago magazine | March 2016

A month later, 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 and sentenced to long prison terms. Forty-seven of the 50 were released in January 1946; the remaining three served additional months in prison.

Here is why I still think it's different regarding the Port Chicago 50. First, a veteran who worked at the Concord Naval Weapons Station for 20 years, and who spoke at the April event, claimed to have met men who were in Port Chicago the night of the explosion. The men, he said, insisted the seamen were handling pyrotechnics without their knowledge and without proper training.