Friday, February 20, 2015

The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steven Sheinkin (Booktalk)

Imagine you are in the Navy, and it is your job to handle explosives: big explosives, lots of them, and quickly. You load them onto the Navy's ships, and you have had no real training in safety measures. Scary job, huh? If those explosives and munitions explode, you are dead. There is zero room for error.

Page 35 in The Port Chicago 50.
That was the job of some African-American Navy men in World War II. They got the lousy jobs in segregated units, and this had been a sad, ongoing fact in our country's history. It was unfair and prejudiced, yet many black men still wanted to serve their country, even if meant digging ditches, carrying explosives, working in the kitchen, and cleaning bathrooms and kitchens. They did not get the more "glamorous" jobs given to white men, and the only factor was their skin color.

But let's get back to the explosives at the Port Chicago base. I have some bad news: want to guess what it is? The explosives did blow up, killing 320 men, injuring almost 400 men, destroying the pier and the ships in the area.

The devastation was unbelievable and tragic. Lives were lost and ruined. Obviously, many of the men killed were the African Americans who handled the explosives. All the witnesses died.

Have you heard the expression "to add insult to injury"? What does it mean? {Let a student explain.} The surviving men were being asked to do exactly the same work in a different location: handling and loading ammunition - highly explosive - onto ships. I don't blame them for not wanting to do it, but the Navy did, and it accused them of mutiny, a deeply serious charge. Read all about their fight in The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights by Steven Sheinkin. Booktalk to grades 5-12. National Book Award finalist.

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