The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights

Book review by
Michael Berry, Common Sense Media
The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny, and the Fight for Civil Rights Book Poster Image
Little-known disaster gets overdue, in-depth treatment.

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Educational Value

The Port Chicago 50 spotlights a little-known event from World War II. Through oral histories, trial transcripts, and newspaper accounts, it chronicles a key incident leading to the end of segregation in the U.S. military.

Positive Messages

The Port Chicago 50 demonstrates the unfairness of segregation in the military. The Port Chicago 50 believed that they should not be forced to continue the unsafe practices that led to the explosion at the docks. Despite their individual fears, most seemed to believe they were doing something positive for their fellow African Americans.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Among the Port Chicago 50, Joe Small stands out as a reluctant leader who worked to keep his fellow defendants hopeful in the face of a life-or-death situation. Although each had his own reason for refusing the orders to return to work, the 50 collectively believed that they were doing something for the benefit of their race.


References to the explosion that sparked the Port Chicago's refusal to work under unsafe conditions on the docks.


"Hell," "goddamn," and "damn" are employed a time or two. One enlisted man says that the group has the white officers "by the balls." The abbreviated "motherf---ers" is used rather than spelling out the highly objectionable term.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Port Chicago 50 by Steve Sheinkin, author of Bomb and Lincoln's Grave Robbersdeals directly with the history of segregation in America and demonstrates how African Americans were separated from good jobs, housing, and other opportunities. After a horrific explosion at a Navy base on San Francisco Bay, 200 surviving African-American seaman refused to return to work. Fifty were eventually court-martialed on mutiny charges. Strong language includes "hell," "goddamn," "by the balls," and "motherf---ers" (the last spelled in that abbreviated way in the text). 

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What's the story?

On July 17, 1944, a massive explosion rocked Port Chicago on San Francisco Bay, where ships were being loaded with bombs and ammunition for American troops in the Pacific. The surviving African American sailors were ordered to resume business as usual, but more than 200 refused, insisting that the work was too dangerous and should not be limited only to African American servicemen. Eventually, 50 sailors were court-martialed on mutiny charges. What could they do to avoid facing a firing squad?

Is it any good?

THE PORT CHICAGO 50 does an excellent job of spotlighting an important yet little-known incident from World War II. Author Steve Sheinkin provides a concise history of segregation in the U.S. armed forces, providing a clear context for the work stoppage at Port Chicago. He smoothly weaves together information from trial transcripts, newspaper articles, and oral histories to devise a well-researched, compelling account of an incident that played a key role in ending segregation in the military.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about segregation and what effect it had on the lives of African Americans in the South and elsewhere. Why do you think it took so long to integrate the U.S. armed forces?

  • How do you like the author's use of trial transcripts, newspaper articles, and oral history to tell the story of the Port Chicago 50? Does that kind of material help the history come alive? 

  • During World War II, how were incidents of racism reported differently in the African American press and in the mainstream press? 

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love stories about the civil rights struggle

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