California Legislature—2015–16 Regular Session

Assembly Joint ResolutionNo. 33

Introduced by Assembly Members Bonilla and Thurmond

March 7, 2016

Assembly Joint Resolution No. 33—Relative to the Port Chicago 50.


AJR 33, as introduced, Bonilla. Port Chicago disaster: African American Sailors of the United States Navy.

This measure would respectfully urge the recognizition that the trial and conviction of the 50 African American sailors of the United States Navy for mutiny in connection with their service at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord, California, during World War II were wrongfully pursued because of racial prejudice and respectfully urge the Congress of the United States to publicly exonerate those 50 African American sailors of the United States Navy in order to further aid in healing the racial divide that continues to exist in the United States.

Fiscal committee: no.

P1    1WHEREAS, The deadliest home-front disaster of World War
2II occurred at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord,
3California, on July 17, 1944, when an explosion at the naval facility
4killed or wounded 710 people, 435 of whom were African
5American; and

6WHEREAS, This single disaster accounted for more than 15
7percent of all African American naval casualties during World
8War II; and

9WHEREAS, After the disaster, 258 African American survivors
10of the explosion refused to resume the loading and unloading of
P2    1ammunition at the naval facility, citing inadequate training and
2the use of unsafe practices; and

3WHEREAS, According to a United States Navy report, “the
4actual work of loading ammunition and explosives aboard the ships
5was performed exclusively by Afro-Americans under the
6supervision of white officers and Afro-American petty officers”
7and “the routine assignment of Afro-American enlisted personnel
8to manual labor was clearly motivated by race and premised upon
9the mistaken notion that they were intellectually inferior and thus
10incapable of meeting the same standards as their white
11counterparts”; and

12WHEREAS, One of the ships was loaded with around 4,600
13tons of ammunition and high explosives, some of which weighed
14650 pounds with activating mechanisms or fuses installed; and

15WHEREAS, At that time there was no formal training in safe
16methods of ammunition handling given to enlisted men, and the
17United States Navy failed to adequately provide these men with
18the tools necessary to operate under safe working conditions, even
19after the explosion occurred; and

20WHEREAS, Weeks before the explosion, the longshoremen’s
21union warned the United States Navy that there would be a disaster
22if the Navy continued to use untrained seamen to load ammunition
23and offered to send experienced longshoremen to train Navy
24recruits in safe handling of ammunition, but this offer from the
25union was ignored by the United States Navy; and

26WHEREAS, Subsequent research has confirmed the use of
27unsafe ammunition loading methods at the naval facility at the
28time and has recognized the existence of pervasive racial prejudice
29in the United States Navy during World War II; and

30WHEREAS, As documented in the book “The Port Chicago
31Mutiny” by Dr. Robert L. Allen, a worker described Port Chicago
32as a “slave outfit,” adding that “we were considered a cheap labor
33force from the beginning”; and

34WHEREAS, White officers would encourage African American
35sailors to compete while loading ammunition and explosives while
36those officers placed bets among themselves; and

37WHEREAS, Following the explosion, many of the African
38American survivors expected to be granted survivors’ leave before
39being reassigned to regular duty, but that leave was not granted,
40even for those who had been hospitalized, and all African American
P3    1men were sent back to work loading ammunition under the same
2officers as before; and

3WHEREAS, White officers were permitted to go home for
430-day leaves; and

5WHEREAS, Fifty sailors of the United States Navy, all African
6American men, ultimately were tried and convicted of mutiny for
7failing to obey orders to resume loading activities; and

8WHEREAS, A mutiny is active revolt with the intent of taking
9charge, but a refusal to work is a passive act of resistance without
10intent to seize power; and

11WHEREAS, Thurgood Marshall, then a chief counsel for the
12NAACP, was reported to state he saw no reason why the men
13should be tried for mutiny, which implies a mass conspiracy, rather
14than on lesser charges of individual subordination and blasted the
15trial by stating that the defendants were being tried for mutiny
16“solely because of their race and color”; and

17WHEREAS, The United States Navy has concluded that there
18can be “no doubt that racial prejudice was responsible for the
19posting of Afro-American enlisted personnel to the loading
20divisions at Port Chicago,” and similar racial prejudicial bias has
21been documented in the conduct of the trial that resulted in the
22court-martial of the sailors at Port Chicago; and

23WHEREAS, Virtually all of the convicted sailors were released
24from prison early in 1946 and were given a general discharge from
25the Navy “under honorable conditions,” and the United States
26Navy announced at the time that race would no longer be a factor
27in filling its jobs; and

28WHEREAS, In 1999, Freddie Meeks was pardoned by President
29Bill Clinton in recognition of the injustice he suffered as one of
30the convicted sailors, and at the time of his pardon, Mr. Meeks
31said, “After all these years, the world should know what happened
32at Port Chicago. It should be cleared up that we did not commit
33mutiny, and we were charged with that because of our race”; and

34WHEREAS, In 2003, the National Park Service dedicated the
35Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial at the disaster
36site, which serves not only as a tribute to the 320 men who died
37in that World War II explosion, but also as an acknowledgment
38of that event as the touchstone for desegregation in the military
39and the beginning of civil rights for all Americans; and

P4    1WHEREAS, In a July 17, 2014, letter recognizing the 70th
2anniversary of the tragedy, President Barack Obama acknowledged
3the African American sailors at Port Chicago, stating, “Faced with
4tremendous obstacles, they fought on two fronts - for freedom
5abroad and equality at home”; and

6WHEREAS, All of the sailors involved in the Port Chicago
7cases have passed away, but their family members and friends
8continue to request that the sailors be cleared of all charges; now,
9therefore, be it

10Resolved by the Assembly and the Senate of the State of
11California, jointly,
That the Legislature respectfully urges the
12recognition that the trial and conviction of the 50 African American
13sailors of the United States Navy for mutiny in connection with
14their service at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord,
15California, during World War II were wrongfully pursued because
16of racial prejudice, as evidenced by the racial bias in the United
17States Navy’s original findings in their cases and the different
18treatment afforded to the convicted sailors’ white counterparts and
19officers; and be it further

20Resolved, That the Legislature respectfully urges the Congress
21of the United States to publicly exonerate the 50 African American
22sailors of the United States Navy who were convicted of mutiny
23in connection with their service at the Port Chicago Naval
24Magazine in Concord, California, during World War II in order
25to further aid in healing the racial divide that continues to exist in
26the United States; and be it further

27Resolved, That the Legislature respectfully urges the Congress
28of the United States to take action to retroactively convert the
29general discharge granted to each of the 50 African American
30sailors to an honorable discharge; and be it further

31Resolved, That the Chief Clerk of the Assembly transmit copies
32of this resolution to the President and the Vice President of the
33United States, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to
34the Majority Leader of the Senate, to each Senator and
35Representative from California in the Congress of the United