Local man argues for the Port Chicago 50

50 African-American U.S. sailors were arrested

— When 50 African-American U.S. sailors were arrested for mutiny 53 years ago, assistant U.S. Attorney Randy K. Jones wasn't even born. Yet Jones, 39, a San Diego federal prosecutor since 1987, wants President Clinton to apologize for the U.S. Navy's actions back then and restore the reputations of the "Port Chicago 50."

On the evening of July 17, 1944, at Port Chicago naval ammunition depot (now Concord Naval Weapons Station, located on the Sacramento River, 30 miles northeast of San Francisco), an explosion - "the largest explosion ever created by mankind to that point" - killed 320 naval personnel, including 202 black sailors assigned to ammunition-loading. Two Navy ships and the port itself were vaporized. Three hundred ninety men, including 226 black enlisted men, were injured. This single explosion was the worst homefront disaster of World War II, accounting for nearly a fifth of all black naval casualties in the war.

In 1944 Jim Crow still ruled. The Navy was segregated. Only black sailors loaded munitions, while white reserve officers pitted one black division against another to speed up loading. No eyewitnesses survived, but it is thought that a crane whose brakes had failed a recent inspection dropped a load of detonator-armed munitions onto the dock. The first explosion fired shrapnel into the hull of the fully loaded Liberty ship E.A. Bryan, setting off the second explosion, which destroyed the docks, the ships, and the settlement around Port Chicago.

At nearby Mare Island a few days later, the Navy ordered the surviving black sailors - most aged 18 to 21 - back to work; 258 of them balked. The Navy locked them up in a barge for several days. Eventually 50 "ringleaders" were singled out and charged with mutiny, an offense Navy officials told them was punishable by death. After considering 50 cases for 80 minutes, the all-white military court found them guilty. Instead of death, they were sentenced to 15 years' imprisonment. Not even the arguments of then-naacp attorney Thurgood Marshall - that it was reserve officers' incompetence and not sailors' carelessness that caused the explosions - could change officials' minds. After the war, when the 50 were granted general amnesty, their mutiny convictions stood.

"All they knew," says Robert L. Allen, author of The Port Chicago Mutiny, "was that they had been branded as traitors and cowards and convicted of mutiny." Many of the men have never spoken of the incident since, not even to their own families.

Now their fate falls on Jones's shoulders. On July 26, he was elected 55th president of the predominantly black National Bar Association (nba). Jones is the third-youngest president in the 18,000-member association's 72-year history and the first from San Diego.

"This story was brought to our attention by way of a resolution at our annual convention," Jones says. The proposed resolution called on the United States Navy and President Clinton to "grant full pardons and honorable discharges to the wrongfully convicted African-American sailors of the Port Chicago Depot." The bar association's membership approved the proposal.

"We felt as a bar association [this was a good time] - especially as this is President Clinton's second term," says Jones. "He's already done something with the Tuskegee people [used for syphilis experiments], with the World War II black veterans. Now is the time to set aside the conviction of these men."

It's 8:00 a.m. The only free time Jones has today. He sips coffee in the second-floor cafeteria of the Federal Building on Front Street. Jones, 6'2", has a salt-and-pepper beard and a kindly face. He balances his job as a prosecutor by singing in the choir of Encanto's Christian Fellowship Community Congregational Church. As president of the nba - "I'm determined to get the nba enough recognition so people don't think it stands for National Basketball Association" - Jones shuttles between Washington and San Diego. "I get by on five hours' sleep a night," he says.

Jones's early life in North Carolina influenced his dedication to the Port Chicago 50. "I'm a product of segregation," he says. "I only started at an integrated school in fourth grade. Just in the last decade, they've pulled down a billboard outside [nearby] Smithfield, which said, TWelcome to Smithfield, Home of the Ku Klux Klan.' The morning before the last graduation of my black school, a bomb went off in the gym, where the ceremony was to be held."

After integration in 1966, he still remembers racism. "Up and through high school, we went through that back door. I knew I couldn't go in as a black person through the front door. The lines were clearly drawn."

Jones grew up in Richlands, population 1100, in a family known for producing carpenters and preachers. "My grandfather was a preacher and a sought-after carpenter.... He was the first African-American in that part of the country to own a Model T."

Jones was the youngest of ten children and the first to go to college. He graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a law degree. He spent three and a half years as a Navy lawyer. When he got out, he stayed in San Diego to practice law. "When I came in 1983, it wasn't so much that the prejudice wasn't here; it was that you didn't see black people. The percentage was so small, compared with North Carolina."

He went into the public sector as a prosecutor for the same reason he's pursuing the Port Chicago pardon. "I owe a deep debt to the people who've gone on before me.... I stay as a government lawyer because I think that's where I can make the most impact right now."

But like many black lawyers, he doesn't have much choice. "African-American lawyers [are] still underrepresented in major law firms and corporate settings. See how many African-Americans are on the bench. See how many African-American lawyers are general counsel. That will tell you something about San Diego."

He says there are "about 110 African-American lawyers" in San Diego County, and the majority are concentrated in government-sector jobs, "whether it's the D.A.'s office, city attorney, county attorney, public defender, Navy.... And that's typical in the country."

Meanwhile, Jones has to figure out how to get to Bill Clinton. He says the president "wasn't there" when a group of congressmen sought - unsuccessfully - to reverse the mutiny convictions in 1994. But now that Clinton is calling for a "year of national dialogue" on race issues, Jones believes the initiative has legs again.

Whatever happens, Robert Allen sees the Port Chicago 50 as pioneers in the battle for integration."There was a public outcry when the black sailors were convicted," he writes. "For the first time, white sailors [were assigned] to ammunition handling. Liberals found conservatives agreeing integration was necessary - if only because segregation grouped black sailors together and made collective action possible."

For Jones, none of that matters as much as returning honor and compensation to the survivors, now in their 70s, who are becoming fewer by the year.

"I sure hope Mr. Jones gets to the president," says Robert Routh, 72, one survivor who was blinded in the blast and thus not involved in the alleged mutiny. "There were 2500 of us stationed there. All youngsters and volunteers. To come home [after the war] and not be able to brag about it or pick up benefits, that was hard for all of them."

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