The current and future generations of Americans may still be forced to cope with some forms of racial discrimination, despite the gains society has made in recent years. But the good news is found in that last phrase. Progress has been and continues to be made.
Unless we remember how far that progress has taken us, the positive changes may not be fully appreciated. Neither will we realize how far we still have to go.
A California congressman introduced legislation last week that would make the site of a munitions explosion that crippled the main West Coast port on the Pacific during World War II and killed 320 people — the majority of them black sailors — part of the National Park System. A ceremony was held Saturday to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the blast, which helped fuel a movement to desegregate the military because of the ensuing treatment of the black survivors.
U.S. Rep. George Miller’s measure that would make Port Chicago Naval Magazine in eastern San Francisco Bay eligible for federal funding for a visitor center, to hire educational rangers and maintain aging facilities. The base is already affiliated with the national parks, but this would give it new status and additional visibility.
It was the worst home-front tragedy of the war.
Most of the dead — 202 men — were black sailors who loaded heavy bombs, ammunitions and other explosives onto ships. They were given no formal training in handling hazardous materials and they labored under all white officers, said Allen. Besides the hard labor, they suffered the indignities of living in a segregated environment.
When the explosion scattered body parts among the wreckage, white survivors who asked for a month leave were granted the time off. But the black seamen were ordered to clean up the debris, even if they were seriously injured. If they could walk, they worked.
The blast further angered men already frustrated by the circumstances, so 258 ammunition loaders — all of them black — defied orders to return to work in the same unsafe conditions. The Navy imprisoned them for three days on a barge designed to hold 75, and told they would be charged with mutiny. The punishment for that in wartime is death.
All but 50 backed down. Those were found guilty in a military trial and sentenced to 15 years in prison. A massive letter campaign protested their treatment, and the Navy began to desegregate. In 1946, the “Port Chicago 50” were pardoned in a general amnesty and served parole on desegregated ships. In 1948, President Truman issued an order desegregating all the Armed Forces.
The NAACP attorney who started the letter-writing campaign was Thurgood Marshall, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice who in 1954 won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka case that demolished the legal basis for segregation in America.
Whether or not Congress agrees to enhance the status of Port Chicago in California, what happened there certainly merits a greater profile. It stands as one of several key turning points for racial equality in the United States.