Amended in Assembly May 5, 2016

California Legislature—2015–16 Regular Session

Assembly Joint ResolutionNo. 33

Introduced by Assembly Members Bonilla and Thurmond

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(Coauthors: Assembly Members Achadjian, Alejo, Travis Allen, Arambula, Atkins, Baker, Bigelow, Bloom, Bonta, Brough, Brown, Burke, Calderon, Campos, Chang, Chau, Chávez, Chiu, Chu, Cooley, Cooper, Dababneh, Dahle, Daly, Dodd, Eggman, Frazier, Cristina Garcia, Eduardo Garcia, Gatto, Gipson, Gomez, Gonzalez, Gordon, Gray, Grove, Hadley, Harper, Roger Hernández, Holden, Irwin, Jones, Kim, Lackey, Levine, Linder, Lopez, Low, Maienschein, Mathis, Mayes, McCarty, Medina, Melendez, Mullin, Nazarian, Obernolte, O’Donnell, Olsen, Patterson, Quirk, Rendon, Ridley-Thomas, Rodriguez, Salas, Santiago, Steinorth, Mark Stone, Ting, Wagner, Waldron, Weber, Wilk, Williams, and Wood)

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March 7, 2016

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


AJR 33, as amended, 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.

P2    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
11ammunition at the naval facility, citing inadequate training and
12the use of unsafe practices; and

13WHEREAS, According to a United States Navy report, “the
14actual work of loading ammunition and explosives aboard the ships
15was performed exclusively by Afro-Americans under the
16supervision of white officers and Afro-American petty officers”
17and “the routine assignment of Afro-American enlisted personnel
18to manual labor was clearly motivated by race and premised upon
19the mistaken notion that they were intellectually inferior and thus
20incapable of meeting the same standards as their white
21counterparts”; and

22WHEREAS, One of the ships was loaded with around 4,600
23tons of ammunition and high explosives, some of which weighed
24650 pounds with activating mechanisms or fuses installed; and

25WHEREAS, At that time there was no formal training in safe
26methods of ammunition handling given to enlisted men, and the
27United States Navy failed to adequately provide these men with
28the tools necessary to operate under safe working conditions, even
29after the explosion occurred; and

30WHEREAS, Weeks before the explosion, the longshoremen’s
31union warned the United States Navy that there would be a disaster
32if the Navy continued to use untrained seamen to load ammunition
33and offered to send experienced longshoremen to train Navy
34recruits in safe handling of ammunition, but this offer from the
35union was ignored by the United States Navy; and

36WHEREAS, Subsequent research has confirmed the use of
37unsafe ammunition loading methods at the naval facility at the
P3    1time and has recognized the existence of pervasive racial prejudice
2in the United States Navy during World War II; and

3WHEREAS, As documented in the book “The Port Chicago
4Mutiny” by Dr. Robert L. Allen, a worker described Port Chicago
5as a “slave outfit,” adding that “we were considered a cheap labor
6force from the beginning”; and

7WHEREAS, White officers would encourage African American
8sailors to compete while loading ammunition and explosives while
9those officers placed bets among themselves; and

10WHEREAS, Following the explosion, many of the African
11American survivors expected to be granted survivors’ leave before
12being reassigned to regular duty, but that leave was not granted,
13even for those who had been hospitalized, and all African American
14men were sent back to work loading ammunition under the same
15officers as before; and

16WHEREAS, White officers were permitted to go home for
1730-day leaves; and

18WHEREAS, Fifty sailors of the United States Navy, all African
19American men, ultimately were tried and convicted of mutiny for
20failing to obey orders to resume loading activities; and

21WHEREAS, A mutiny is active revolt with the intent of taking
22charge, but a refusal to work is a passive act of resistance without
23intent to seize power; and

24WHEREAS, Thurgood Marshall, then a chief counsel for the
25NAACP, was reported to state he saw no reason why the men
26 should be tried for mutiny, which implies a mass conspiracy, rather
27than on lesser charges of individual subordination and blasted the
28trial by stating that the defendants were being tried for mutiny
29“solely because of their race and color”; and

30WHEREAS, The United States Navy has concluded that there
31can be “no doubt that racial prejudice was responsible for the
32posting of Afro-American enlisted personnel to the loading
33divisions at Port Chicago,” and similar racial prejudicial bias has
34been documented in the conduct of the trial that resulted in the
35court-martial of the sailors at Port Chicago; and

36WHEREAS, Virtually all of the convicted sailors were released
37from prison early in 1946 and were given a general discharge from
38the Navy “under honorable conditions,” and the United States
39Navy announced at the time that race would no longer be a factor
40in filling its jobs; and

P4    1WHEREAS, In 1999, Freddie Meeks was pardoned by President
2Bill Clinton in recognition of the injustice he suffered as one of
3the convicted sailors, and at the time of his pardon, Mr. Meeks
4said, “After all these years, the world should know what happened
5at Port Chicago. It should be cleared up that we did not commit
6mutiny, and we were charged with that because of our race”; and

7WHEREAS, In 2003, the National Park Service dedicated the
8Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial at the disaster
9site, which serves not only as a tribute to the 320 men who died
10in that World War II explosion, but also as an acknowledgment
11of that event as the touchstone for desegregation in the military
12and the beginning of civil rights for all Americans; and

13WHEREAS, In a July 17, 2014, letter recognizing the 70th
14anniversary of the tragedy, President Barack Obama acknowledged
15the African American sailors at Port Chicago, stating, “Faced with
16tremendous obstacles, they fought on two fronts - for freedom
17abroad and equality at home”; and

18WHEREAS, All of the sailors involved in the Port Chicago
19cases have passed away, but their family members and friends
20continue to request that the sailors be cleared of all charges; now,
21therefore, be it

22Resolved by the Assembly and the Senate of the State of
23California, jointly,
That the Legislature respectfully urges the
24recognition that the trial and conviction of the 50 African American
25sailors of the United States Navy for mutiny in connection with
26their service at the Port Chicago Naval Magazine in Concord,
27California, during World War II were wrongfully pursued because
28of racial prejudice, as evidenced by the racial bias in the United
29States Navy’s original findings in their cases and the different
30treatment afforded to the convicted sailors’ white counterparts and
31officers; and be it further

32Resolved, That the Legislature respectfully urges the Congress
33of the United States to publicly exonerate the 50 African American
34sailors of the United States Navy who were convicted of mutiny
35in connection with their service at the Port Chicago Naval
36Magazine in Concord, California, during World War II in order
37to further aid in healing the racial divide that continues to exist in
38the United States; and be it further

39Resolved, That the Legislature respectfully urges the Congress
40of the United States to take action to retroactively convert the
P5    1general discharge granted to each of the 50 African American
2sailors to an honorable discharge; and be it further

3Resolved, That the Chief Clerk of the Assembly transmit copies
4of this resolution to the President and the Vice President of the
5United States, to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, to
6the Majority Leader of the Senate, to each Senator and
7Representative from California in the Congress of the United