MOTCO: A pivotal moment in history

December 17, 2020 | Kieways 2020 Q4

About 200 yards from the new Pier 2 at MOTCO stands a poignant reminder of a pivotal event in the country’s early civil rights movement.

The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial marks the site where on July 17, 1944, 320 sailors and civilians, 202 of them African American servicemen, were killed in an accidental detonation while loading explosives. It would cause the largest loss of life on the home front during World War II.

African American servicemen responsible for loading munitions had little or no training for handling explosive materials. But after the event, the survivors were ordered back to work. Concerned another explosion was possible, hundreds of African American sailors chose not to participate.

Fifty of the men were tried for mutiny and sentenced to up to 15 years. Two years later, 47 of the 50 were given clemency; some returned to loading ships. The events led to groundbreaking changes in the U.S. military, including mandated certification for munitions handling and a requirement that all munitions be redesigned for safety.

In June 1945, the Navy began desegregating its units. In July 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, the watershed legislation that called for desegregation of the Armed Services.

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