Port Chicago 50 - Steve Sheinkin

A National Book Award Finalist review:

Now, two and a half years into World War II, more than 200 black sailors had died in service at the segregated base of Port Chicago. "Ought not this sacrifice," the paper asked, "touch the conscience of America? Is one to assume, as the nation continues to ask the Negro to die for less than the white American dies, that the national conscience of America is at such a low moral level that most Americans are satisfied that the blood of Negroes is worth less than that of whites?" (74)

On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion killed over 300 dock workers at Port Chicago. Less than a month later, 244 men refused to go back to work unless work safety conditions were improved. Fifty men were charged with mutiny, facing decades in prison. Port Chicago 50 is a fascinating and enlightening book about a tragic yet crucial moment in civil rights history, highlighting to prejudice which black men and women faced in the armed forces during WWII. Though horrific to read about, the strength and perseverance of the Port Chicago 50 is inspiring and Sheinkin manages to present a nuanced and well-balanced narrative of the situation that led to greater rights and freedoms being granted to black Americans.

What is most fascinating about this book is the fact that it covers a massive event that is mostly unknown. Sheinkin's talent lies in his ability to present incredibly important historical events in an accessible and clear way. Sheinkin's research is thorough, as can be seen in the back matter, including source notes, a comprehensive index, and a listing of oral histories. What could easily become a dry and ineffective text is transformed into a multi-faceted narrative supported by interviews and other historical accounts.

When the Port Chicago 50 were put on trial, Thurgood Marshall, a New York City lawyer, watched the proceedings closely, knowing what the verdict would be, but ultimately hoping the results could eventually be used to benefit the civil rights movement. When the guilty verdict was announced, Marshall immediately prepared an appeal. Even though the appeal was unsuccessful, the sailors eventually returned to work, although they carried the stigma of mutiny with them for the rest of their lives.

Sheinkin argues that although the series of events appeared to be a civil rights failure on the surface, the 50 sailors did more for civil rights of black people serving in the armed forces than they were given credit for up until now. He also argues that the events he discusses helped to remove discrimination and segregation in all realms of the armed services.

As usual, Sheinkin hits it out of the park with another in a remarkable series of non-fiction offerings for young readers.

Highly Recommended


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