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Port Chicago 50From Goodreads: An astonishing civil rights story from Newbery Honor winner and National Book Award finalist Steve Sheinkin.

On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked the segregated Navy base at Port Chicago, California, killing more than 300 sailors who were at the docks, critically injuring off-duty men in their bunks, and shattering windows up to a mile away. On August 9th, 244 men refused to go back to work until unsafe and unfair conditions at the docks were addressed. When the dust settled, fifty were charged with mutiny, facing decades in jail and even execution. This is a fascinating story of the prejudice that faced black men and women in America’s armed forces during World War II, and a nuanced look at those who gave their lives in service of a country where they lacked the most basic rights.


I wouldn’t classify this book as a novel, but more of a MG/YA history book told in narrative form. It presents the history of Port Chicago and the fight for civil rights during WWII, a time when whites and blacks were still segregated, regardless of the war efforts. Told in sections, it begins with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and shows how the Navy unjustly treated its black servicemen: they were not allowed to fight, but rather could only work in the mess hall as servants to their white comrades. The opening chapter details the bravery of one such man, Dorie Miller, during the Pearl Harbor bombing, going on to show the immense racism that pervaded all walks of life, including the Navy, during this time in US history.  Miller, awarded for his service in a time of need, is unceremoniously sent back to the kitchens to serve even though he has proved himself just as capable as any other man, regardless of color.
This scene sets the stage for what is to come: extreme injustice, racism, and betrayal for all black servicemen and women, and especially the 50 young black men accused of mutiny in Port Chicago.  These young men refused to continue loading ammo and bombs on ships–a task only delegated to black servicemen—after an explosion that decimated their friends in other platoons and showed just how dangerous a task was delegated to black servicemen while all white servicemen set sail at sea. The book details the injustice of this segregation and also shows how their own country, a country that’s constitution states that all men are free and are created equal, treated them like cattle–refusing to train them to handle explosives, expecting them to work long shifts, and ultimately making a game of their dangerous task in loading bombs.

After the huge explosion and the death of many young black servicemen, some very brave souls refuse to continue, even on pain of death, and so begins a trial that is spoken little of today. In fact, until I picked up this book, I’d never heard of this event in history–it’s like the US has swept it under the rug, trying to blot out the true ugliness of racism, intolerance, and segregation that has plagued the nation for most of its colonized life.

I am not one who generally picks up history books, but this was an eye-opening story told in a narrative voice that makes reading history interesting. Complete with pictures, it details the lives of those who fought back against segregation, fighting for freedom in an unjust world, and who ultimately caused the entire armed forces to change their policies in terms segregation.  This event is indeed one of the sparks that promoted change and revolution, even though it took approximately 20 more years for the successful civil rights movement to fully come into being.

Overall, this is an educational read that is interesting and well written; I highly suggest picking it up, especially if you’re interested in the armed forces and the truth behind US history.  Three stars.

3 starsRoaring Book Press, an imprint of Macmillian Children’s Publishers, graciously gave me an ARC of this book during NCTE 2013.

This title releases on January 21, 2014.

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